Interview with Monsignor Kevin W. Irwin: God, nature, and the liturgy

A great many thanks to Rev. Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin, M.Div. S.T.D. for discussing the foundational links between the Catholic faith, its liturgies, and the created order.

I was first introduced to Msgr. Irwin in 2007. A Dominican priest and mutual friend sent me a paper he had written for the eighth International Congress on Liturgy. The paper touched on the relation between the sacraments and creation. From this I wrote a column for the Rhode Island Catholic. In all, the paper's insights provided watershed teaching moments for me and I am glad that Msgr. Irwin has taken the time to explain it all to you here.

Msgr. Irwin serves in the Archdiocese of New York. He is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, the Catholic Academy of Liturgy, the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and the Catholic Theological Society of America. He has served as the Dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at The Catholic University of America. And he holds the Walter J. Schmitz, Chair of Liturgical Studies and is the author of sixteen books on liturgy and sacraments.

For more on Msgr. Irwin visit his biography at the Catholic University of America.


Catholic Ecology: You are well known for your work on the subject of the sacraments, especially the sacramentality of creation and the role of creation in liturgy. Tell us a little about that role—specifically, what should it mean for Catholics that creation is so deeply interwoven in the Mass and all sacraments?

Msgr. Irwin: There are several ways to understand the sacraments and to appreciate their role in Christian faith. I favor approaching the liturgy of the sacraments from the point of view of what they mean theologically. The ancient maxim for this is "lex orandi, lex credendi," [that is] "the rule of prayer establishes the rule of faith." To this I add "lex vivendi," that is "the rule of living. In other words what we do in the liturgy of the sacraments comes from daily life and work and it returns us to life and work. Some call this "spirituality."

For me the earth is brought into the act of worship and the act of worship sends us back to life on this good earth.

The primal elements of earth, air, fire and water, along with light and darkness are "used" in the liturgy to worship the God of creation, the covenant and redemption. The "work of human hands" in bread and wine is used in the Mass to offer back to God what God the Father gave us in and through his Son, the paschal mystery of dying and rising. What is bread and wine but the result of the "paschal process" of sewing the seed, harvesting wheat, milling it into grain and baking it. The same is true for harvesting grapes, crushing them and their fermentation. The "work of our redemption" experienced in the Mass is brought about by human work.

Among the "take aways" is that we should revere the earth through which we worship God. And we should revere humans and human labor through which we worship God. It is all of a piece with the liturgy as "summit and source."

CE: Would it be fair to say that because of the sacramental nature of the Catholic faith—and because of the Incarnation—that Catholics are by their very nature environmentalists? Is that what Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis—and the bishops—have been telling us?

Msgr. Irwin: They are reminding us of the fundamental substratum of liturgy—the principle of sacramentality argued above. They also argue from the very positive Catholic theology of creation. They also remind us that ecology is linked with "human ecology" and the value of human persons as well as nature.

CE: As a lay person, I can’t help but wonder how any of this might impact you when you say Mass. Does it? And if so, how?

Msgr. Irwin: I try to be attentive to everything we say and do at Mass. I am especially attuned, now, to the human labor that goes into producing bread and wine.

CE: In February you gave a talk in Rome on Sacrosanctum Concilium (a document on the liturgy issued in 1963 as part of the Second Vatican Council). What should Catholics engaged in worldly affairs—be it ecological, social, political, a mix of them—know about Sacrosanctum Concilium and how it speaks to our activity in the world.

Msgr. Irwin: The theological heart of that document is paragraphs 1-13. It describes fully what the liturgy is and means. It is the stuff of meditation. Once one is immersed in that text then one can the more easily see the life implications of the liturgy.

For example it talks about the "ecclesiological" aspect of the liturgy, which should lead us to appreciate that it is about "the common good." It speaks about the "eschatological" (the "not yet-ness") of the liturgy, which should lead us to evaluate how we share, or do not share, the goods of this earth in charity with each other.

CE: Similarly, how might an apparent loss of interest in the Mass—and of faith in general—coincide with the growing ecological crises of our age?

Msgr. Irwin: I think one way back for people to appreciate liturgy is to appreciate that it is an "earthy" and "primal" event. One of the problems, I would argue, with the implementation of the revised Catholic liturgy is a tendency to be too wordy and heavily didactic. This is all the more glaring when as a professor of university age students [I] see them as less concerned with words and texts and more interested in social media and the visual.

CE: In the late 1990s you participated in conferences about the environment hosted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Tell us about that experience.

Msgr. Irwin: They were interdisciplinary theological colloquia—and all these words matter.

“Interdisciplinary" papers were discussed (prepared beforehand) from scripture, systematic theology, ethics, church history, liturgy etc. They were "theological" in that we did not venture into science, which we did not know And they were "colloquia" in that they were discussion oriented in which fertile and fruitful ideas were exchanged.

CE: Based on that and other experiences, how can dioceses and parishes continue to encourage the People of God to live as stewards of creation—whether at home or in the public square?

Msgr. Irwin: If we believe what we pray, then we should act accordingly. From my perspective, it is all in the liturgy.

About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.