Rural life is still the backbone of America, says Jim Ennis Print E-mail
Around the Diocese
Written by Sue Barry, Catholic Herald Correspondent   
Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017 -- 12:00 AM
rural life group
Attending the talk by Jim Ennis, third from left, in Dodgeville are, from left: Tom Nelson, rural service coordinator for the Catholic Multicultural Center in Madison; Fr. Bernard Rott, diocesan rural life spiritual director and pastor in Dickeyville and Kieler; and Fr. Jim Murphy, coordinator of the event and pastor in Highland and Montfort. (Sue Barry photo)

DODGEVILLE -- “Rural life is still the backbone of America,” said Jim Ennis, executive director of Catholic Rural Life (CRL) and president of International Catholic Rural Association (ICRA), as he addressed a group of about 50 people at St. Joseph Parish in Dodgeville on October 1.

They came out to hear his presentation on a new document The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader: Integrating Faith with Agriculture and the Environment published by the two organizations in November 2016.

CRL is the Catholic non-profit organization serving the rural Church in the United States since 1923. It is headquartered at St. Thomas University, St. Paul, Minn. Ennis has served as executive director since 2008. ICRA is headquartered in Rome, Italy, and was founded in 1962.

Losing family farms

“We are losing our family farms at a staggering rate, but CRL still takes the teachings of Jesus Christ and incorporates them into the goals and mission of the organization to help farmers and ranchers and all those who are associated with agricultural production,” Ennis said. “Where there used to be 10 farms, there now is one,” he said. Some 50 million people still live in rural America.


When asking the audience for their experiences with their family farms or communities, the answers confirmed many of the situations Ennis discussed throughout his presentation.

For example, family farms had to be sold because none of the children wanted to continue farming; some were bought out by larger farming corporations or sold to organic farmers or investors.

Why document was prepared

Ennis explained why the document was prepared, how it came about, and how it reinforces those CRL goals.

When he joined CRL and got involved with farmers and ranchers, he realized there was no clear voice on a lot of food and agriculture issues. “None of the Catholic universities across the country offer agricultural programs in their curriculum,” he told his audience.

“Young people are not being inspired to go into farming or agricultural jobs. Current and often aging farmers are being beaten down by the grind of their work and losing a sense of their vocation,” he said.

Farming is one of the most important vocations in the world, Ennis stressed, and the document calls it “The Original Vocation: To Cultivate and Keep” (based on Genesis 2:15).

It is essential, especially in this time of secularization and the temptation to neglect God, to encourage a deeper reflection upon agriculture as a vocation and the responsibilities this implies, according to the document.

In the foreword of the document, it says, “These are difficult times for the world’s food systems, in which both natural and human ecology are being detrimentally affected by the same technologies and practices that yield incredible surpluses of food. Nevertheless, the Church maintains the hope that Christian agricultural leaders, inspired by a vocational understanding of their work and lives, will transform our modern food systems into forces for good, upholding the integrity of the environment, and advancing the common good.”

Conference in Rome sets stage for the document

In 2012, Ennis attended a conference in Rome at which a document called The Vocation of the Business Leader was presented. Later, while he was talking with Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Ennis said, “I told His Eminence that there was a need for a similar document for farmers. Cardinal Turkson responded, ‘That’s a great idea. You do it,’” Ennis said.

After that great commission, Ennis and Dr. Christopher Thompson, associate professor of moral theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., went to work and developed the document. “It took four years and we -- with about 60 other people, including farmers and members from every continent -- presented it to Pope Francis in December 2016,” Ennis said.

During those four years, Ennis said, there were many, many meetings and discussions and symposiums. The final document was an interweaving of practical insights from symposium participants -- from many different countries and in many different roles of the agricultural process -- with theological truths of mankind and the Christian faith.

At the National Agricultural Symposium in St. Paul, Minn., held November 5 to 7, 2014, theologians and business leaders reiterated, “You have to get this (the document and its message) out there,” Ennis said.

Ennis explained that with this great vocation of farming, there is also great responsibility. It involves not only feeding the world, but caring for the environment and passing it on to the next generation in as good or better shape than they found it.

The farmer and those in agricultural jobs of all sorts are called to care for the human person, the animals they raise, and the environment. While farmers are caretakers of God’s creation in a very “lands-on” way, we all eat food and we are all called to be good consumers. The decisions we make as consumers also have an effect on the food chain, Ennis explained.

Purpose of the document

Ennis said he was a California kid and “I grew up in a cool, great Catholic family, but I was un-catechized in my faith. Through CRL and ICRA, I have had a wonderful opportunity to work side by side with theologians and priests and agricultural, Church, and business leaders to develop a resource for this great vocation of the agricultural leader.”

He works everyday with rural farmers and parishes and has seen and felt firsthand the heart of the people tilling the soil and keeping the faith all over the world, he said.

“Sometimes the Lord uses small things to bring about a great deal of blessings,” Ennis chuckled. “Take David and Goliath or the boy with the two fish and five loaves and see how God uses them. Or look at how David was chosen from Samuel’s sons over his tall, handsome brothers. Don’t look at outward appearances,” Ennis explained, “look at the heart.”

On every page of this document, Scripture is quoted to back up the claims that “our daily bread” is a gift from God. It reads in the document, “our aim and purpose is to serve as a spiritual guide for agricultural leadership in affirming the dignity of the farmer and rancher. We seek to encourage their commitments to the common good, including care of the earth, and to foster an understanding of their work as more than simply a necessary task or undertaking; rather, their work is a vocation, a form of life through which God can be known, served, and glorified.”

The importance of family farms is specifically addressed in the document, although acknowledging the cultural circumstances that are making the reality of the family farm more difficult.

“Our primary duty is to protect human life,” Ennis explained. “The Church is trying to teach why it is important for families to work together and enhance family operations. That idea has become counter-cultural. Just like contraception is not promoting life, the reality of smaller families and future generations not staying on the farm are making the goal less attainable.”

The document also addresses respecting the dignity of farmers and the farm workers, sustainable agricultural and the family, the ethics of eating and consuming, and sustainable nutrition and food security. Agricultural leaders must overcome the great problem of food waste. Ennis noted that the world produces enough food for everyone, but 30 percent of that food is wasted. One reason is in distribution, but there are many others.

Three-step process: seeing, judging, acting

The first thing necessary, he said, is to “see” what is happening in the world of agriculture, and he summed them up as: 1) globalization of industrialized agriculture; 2) financialization of agricultural commodities; 3) technocracy; 4) agricultural knowledge and technology and ecological changes and balance.

He touched briefly on what each of these areas mean in the ever-changing world of agriculture. There are many others, Ennis said, but the document focuses on these issues.

Basically, small and larger farm operations are being taken over by big business operations that often compromise the integrity, sustainability, and core values that the original vocation of farming entailed.

The next step of the process is “judging,” Ennis said, and referred to the portion of the document which involves analyzing and studying the strengths and challenges of each part of the agricultural systems -- such as globalization of industrialized agriculture. Each has its pros and cons, and they need to be studied, so that they can lead to a realistic guide to agricultural policy and decision making.

Section 46 of the document, in part says, “When faced with extraordinary challenges of creating more just and sustainable food systems, it is essential to keep in mind the consoling words of our Lord himself: ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible’” (Mt. 19:26).

The final step of the process is “acting” -- taking action to get the job done and the word out to those who need help and direction in how to better live their vocation of farming, ranching, or jobs in other agricultural roles.

In section 68, the document states, “The world needs a paradigm shift in agriculture: the ‘green revolution’ of high inputs must now be converted into an integral ecology: one that considers both agricultural efficiency and integrity.”

A reflection for prayer and contemplation

Ennis said he is taking this document -- which is a reflection not a solution -- all over the country and “we need supporters -- financial, yes -- but we also need prayers.”

Our rural communities are disappearing, and we need ideas and suggestions and prayerful contemplation to come up with plans of action, he said.

“One deacon from Easton, Minn., said to me, ‘Instead of the commandment ‘love thy neighbor, more often they love their neighbor’s land.’”

That deacon, Ennis said, also explained about one solution that has been working in his area -- Easton -- to help older farmers sell their farms to younger couples.

Although it is counter-culture thinking, the older farmer offers his farm at a reasonable price to a young couple, who otherwise might not be able to afford to purchase a farm. This seems so simple, but in a culture which is trying to sell land at the highest price, often the land gets traded as an investment commodity, Ennis explained. Greed is a vice, he said and he pointed to several scriptural passages that address it.

One Scripture verse highlighted in the document is, “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than ourselves” (Phil 2:3).

The document will be a resource, Ennis said, and hopefully it will be a catalyst for change. He reminded the audience of another scriptural passage that says, “Do not be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is -- his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Rm 2:12).

Referring to Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ --On Care of Our Common Home many times in the document, it quotes ,“We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress replaces human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, a part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development, and personal fulfillment” (LS 128).

Ennis said he wanted to close with the conclusion of the document which calls for gratitude to the agricultural leader. Despite the challenges, we are compelled to reiterate that farming is a noble vocation. The complexity of the challenges listed in the document will call forth humility and dialogue. We have to dialogue with God in prayer and contemplation, he said.

He also reiterated that CRL needs supporters and allies to help spread the message of this document throughout the country’s rural communities. For more information on how to get involved or to become a member of CRL, go to This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 651-962-5955. Or write to Catholic Rural Life, University of St. Thomas, Mail Number 4080, 215 Summit Ave., St. Paul, MN 55105.

Many area priests were in attendance, including Msgr. Daniel Ganshert, pastor of the host St. Joseph Parish; coordinator of the event, Fr. Jim Murphy, pastor of SS. Anthony and Philip Parish, Highland, and St. Thomas, Montfort; Fr. Bernard Rott, pastor of Holy Ghost Parish, Dickeyville, and Immaculate Conception, Kieler, diocesan rural life spiritual director; and Fr. David Flanagan, pastor of St. Rose of Lima, Cuba City, and St. Patrick, Benton.

The day began with noon Mass and a luncheon before the talk by Ennis.

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