ST. PAUL, Minnesota — “There is something almost sacramental about the life of the rural family.”
Those words were spoken by a North Dakota bishop in November 1923, when a small group of clergy and laypeople gathered in St. Louis to found the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.
They were inspired by a farm boy from Minnesota: Father Edwin O’Hara, the son of Irish immigrants who had fled the potato famine and settled in Lanesboro. The youngest of eight, he had a deep faith and a keen eye for the underdog. Serving as a chaplain during World War I had revealed a glaring need in the church for better catechesis for the soldiers from rural communities.
O’Hara considered it part of a pattern of neglect in which church leaders overlooked the social, spiritual and economic struggles of rural Catholics. When he returned to the U.S. from the war, he set about establishing an organization to remedy that.
The National Catholic Rural Life Conference published a manifesto to articulate its core principles and affirm the farmer. “The special adaptability of the farm home for nurturing strong and wholesome Christian family life is the primary reason why the Catholic Church is so deeply concerned with rural problems,” it stated.
Based then in Des Moines, Iowa, it began establishing a network of diocesan rural life directors.
Nearly a century later, the nonprofit organization now is called Catholic Rural Life. It is headquartered at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Its work is more urgent than ever, as forces converge in the countryside: Declining numbers of farmers, uncertainty over the recently concluded trade deal with China, a newfound interest in food production and an escalating concern for the earth, as laid out by Pope Francis in his groundbreaking encyclical Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home.
The political fault lines crisscross with personal concerns that keep rural Catholics up at night: how to pass on the faith and the farm.
All the while, Catholic Rural Life’s four-person staff quietly plugs along, supporting 20 chapters and focusing on its mission to apply the teachings of Jesus for the betterment of rural America.
“It is overwhelming,” said Executive Director Jim Ennis. “That’s what brings you to your knees.”
The organization aims to provide equal parts education and inspiration. Specifically, the staff has identified three central charges: advocate for a more sustainable food system from farm to table, promote stewardship of creation and revitalize rural communities.
The latter is an ongoing effort that includes outreach in many forms and spiritual nourishment to sustain farmers on the long days.
One of Ennis’s early initiatives sought to develop lay leaders to do some of the work that rural pastors cannot because they are stretched thin. “Life In Christ” trains lay Catholics to lead small groups in discussions of Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and papal encyclicals.
The impact of the organization’s outreach is powerful, said Bishop Brendan J. Cahill of Victoria, Texas, board president.
“It encourages people and it connects people,” he said.
That’s exactly what Brenda Rudolph craves as a 30-something Catholic living in the country.
“Raising children on a dairy farm can be isolating,” said Rudolph, who contributes to Catholic Rural Life’s blog and belongs to St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Bowlus, Minnesota. “There are few moms that I can relate to.”
A text from a neighbor or a surprise delivery of cookies tucked in the mailbox “means the world,” she said, especially when God’s plan seems to diverge from hers and she sometimes struggles to trust God.
Fostering that same sense of connection among rural priests also is the organization’s focus.
“We very rarely socialize,” said Father Gregory Mastey, pastor of Two Rivers Catholic Community, a parish cluster in central Minnesota. Mastey needs a pickup truck with all-wheel drive to celebrate Mass at all three of his parishes each weekend. He has logged more than 750,000 miles in 24 years of priesthood.
When a young priest at a neighboring cluster expressed his loneliness, Mastey invited him to move into the rectory. The effect was almost immediate.
“He says he’s been praying better, he’s been eating better, he’s been sleeping better,” Mastey said. “Just having somebody to talk to or throw some ideas off of. It’s good for me, too. We do night prayer together.”
In October, Mastey coordinated the second annual Holy Hunting for local priests to hunt together, an idea he borrowed from Texas priests he met through Catholic Rural Life.
Their insights and best practices will be shared through “Thriving In Rural Ministry,” which launched in 2018 with a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc., an Indiana-based foundation that supports religious organizations. The program serves pastors in rural areas by offering retreats and forging a network among their country peers.
Teaching seminarians about farmers is part of the equation and the organization’s growing Rural Ministry Practicum invites rural priests into the classroom and then brings the young men out to a farm each summer. Ten dioceses participated in the practicum in 2019.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity is the chance to engage young Catholics with Laudato Si’.
Catholic Rural Life has leveraged interest in the green movement since its beginning, Ennis said, and led to a program called “Why Eating Is a Moral Act” in the late 1990s.
But something new is at play. Ennis sees it when he speaks about sustainability at college campuses. So the staff is updating its materials and creating a study guide to appeal to a new generation of Catholics who are concerned about where their food comes from and how it is grown.
Ennis expressed hope that Laudato Si’ can be a vehicle for the new evangelization because it’s not merely an academic document but a clarion call for a sustainable lifestyle, with young people leading the way.
The organization has a presence in 80 dioceses today — down from 102 in the early 2000s, before the recession and the latest wave of clergy sex-abuse scandals.
Adapting to the future also has meant being attuned to city-dwelling Catholics who share rural values, Ennis said. Forty-five percent of Catholic Rural Life’s members now live in urban areas.
Capecchi writes for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
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