||Bishop Robert C. Morlino blesses a pair of sheep brought to the Rural Life Day at St. Patrick Church in Loreto October 28. Farm equipment, fields, and animals were blessed following Mass. (Catholic Herald photo/Kat Wagner)
LORETO -- The rural community is faced with many concerns — a threatening economy, climate change, altering weather patterns and the uncertainty of nature, encroaching cities, and merging parishes.
Many of the fears raised by these concerns were brought forward during a discussion at the Diocesan Rural Life Day at St. Patrick Church in Loreto on October 28. The day’s activities highlighted the importance of addressing issues related to rural life, which Bishop Robert C. Morlino in his homily during the afternoon Mass called “essential to all life.”
“Nothing is more basic than eating — and I look like that’s true,” Bishop Morlino added with a smile. “You’re the ones who get us the sustenance God wants us to have . . . you’re at the heart of that.”
Census data shows that, nationally, less than two percent of the American population is actively engaged in farming. But the rural community extends beyond the farmers that inhabit it, and the impact of their work extends beyond the rural community. Food prices and farming affect everyone on the food chain.
“Agriculture is the way farmers, ranchers, and farmworkers provide a decent life for their families and help feed a hungry world. It is not just another economic activity,” the U.S. bishops said in their 2003 letter “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food.”
“Agriculture is different because it touches all our lives, wherever we live or whatever we do,” the bishops wrote. “It is about how we feed our own families, and the whole human family. It is about how we treat those who put food on our table and those who do not have enough food. It is about what is happening to food and farming, rural communities and villages, in the face of increasing concentration, new technology, and growing globalization in agriculture. For believers, and especially for Catholics, who turn to the Scripture and Church teaching for guidance, these questions and choices in the world of agriculture have fundamental ethical and human dimensions.”
Addressing food issues
The Catholic Church, on a national and local scale, has been working to build concrete initiatives to address the needs of the rural community.
At the Rural Life Day in Loreto, Jim Ennis, the executive director of the National Rural Life Conference (NRLC) spoke with the morning¹s attendees about the efforts of the conference to work with public policy and to create a network in the rural and urban Church to provide support.
Members of the local Reedsburg Cluster Parishes spoke of their project to connect food producers with food consumers on a local level. (See left-hand sidebar for more information on the project.)
A representative of the ecumenical Churches Center for Land and People (www.cclpmidwest.org) had a display and information on the Markets and Meals for Hope, an initiative to bring markets and meals to local churches during the winter months, and the Harvest of Hope fund, an initiative that offers financial help to farm families in financial distress.
And through the Rural Life Day itself, sponsored by the Rural Life Office of Catholic Charities, Diocese of Madison, support was given to local food producers through a farmers market and harvest meal of organic, local produce and meats. The day also offered an opportunity to focus on building the unity of the Church, through a sharing of information and knowledge of the issues facing the farming community.
Building the Church
The Catholic Church is one body, whether rural or urban.
“The Catholic Church has a pastoral presence throughout rural America and in rural communities around the globe,” the bishops wrote in “For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food.” “Within our community of faith, farmers and farmworkers, land owners and contract growers, business owners and workers are called to the one Eucharistic table to be nourished by the Body and Blood of Christ.
“Throughout history, rural parishes have built a sense of community, nurturing the spiritual and sacramental lives of their people, and offering formation and faith development programs,” the bishops continued. “As rural populations diminish and the resources available in rural communities decrease, the role of the Church and those who serve it becomes even more important.”
As St. Thomas Aquinas said, the Church is always being built up in Christ, the bishop said in his homily at the Rural Life Mass. “We don’t build up the Church; Christ builds up the Church in us and through us. Sometimes we’re tempted to think we’re in charge of the building up of the Church.”
But we must remember the psalm: “Unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build.” “We are instruments of the Lord, and we are always being built up as the Church,” Bishop Morlino said. “It’s never finished until we arrive in the heavenly kingdom.
“Who better to understand that than you — than people who are tied, bonded, lovingly to farmhood?” the bishop said. “You know what it is to build up the farm, to build up the business. You know how it is to cope with the failures, when things don’t go quite right, and you know how to celebrate the successes. So today and every day take that awareness that you have and apply it to yourself as being built by God.”
And then we can think of the loving care God has in building us up, the bishop said. “It’s much greater even than your loving care for your land can be.”
Nature’s cycle means that sometimes we have successes and sometimes failures — but God is with us in those failures, and he suffers with us, the bishop said. He knows personally what that experience is — it is in the image and likeness of his son.
“But just as we go on with love on the land and on the farm, so too does God go on with us,” the bishop said. “We never lose hope; we are fixed on Christ, who is the only hope that does not disappoint.”