Scientists, farmers, theologians reflect on agriculture as ‘noble vocation’

| March 29, 2018 | 0 Comments

Sister Esther Mary Nickel, associate director of worship for the Diocese of Sioux City, Iowa, makes remarks during a panel discussion March 22 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul during a national conference called A Noble Vocation: Integrating Faith, Food and the Environment. Others participating are, from left, moderator Christopher Thompson of the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul, and panelists Father Gregory Mastey of the Diocese of St. Cloud, who grew up on a farm, and Rev. Brad Roth, pastor of a Mennonite church in Kansas. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

The story was about a duck — that a friendly duck had been regularly spending time in a man’s yard, and now the man was feeding it. He had asked his pastor, Father Gregory Mastey, if he had time to listen to his story, and Father Mastey had said yes.

“After about 15 minutes of him telling me these stories about this duck that keeps showing up … then he turned to tears. And I said, what else is happening, George? And he says, ‘I’m lonely after my wife has passed. My life isn’t the same when I have neighbors so far away. I feel the pains of this.’ And that came out of a duck story.”

“This is the reality of pastoral life in rural areas, especially with farmers and rural people,” said Father Mastey, a rural pastor, at a conference on agriculture and vocation March 22.

A priest of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Father Mastey was among three panelists speaking on “Faith, Food, and the Environment and the Task of the Pastoral Leader” at A Noble Vocation: Integrating Faith, Food and the Environment, a three-day conference organized by St. Paul-based Catholic Rural Life.

Also on the panel were Sister of Mercy Esther Mary Nickel, who works in the Diocese of Des Moines, and Rev. Brad Roth, a Mennonite pastor from Kansas and author of “God’s Country: Faith, Hope and the Future of the Rural Church.” The three shared their pastoral experiences and insights from working in rural communities.

Held at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, A Noble Vocation’s other sessions focused on U.S. agriculture history, environmental challenges and climate change, and they included international and indigenous perspectives.

In remarks at the conference’s opening evening session March 21, CRL Executive Director James Ennis said the conference’s 110 participants from 18 states had been drawn together by various concerns, including food security, agriculture issues and the environment.

“We’re gathered here because there’s a real concern around what’s happening around agriculture and family farms, what’s happening in our rural communities and our rural life, concerns about food security and how we’re going to feed the world in the future, while caring at the same time for our environment,” he said. “There are concerns about retrieving this sense of the nobility of agricultural production and the nobility of the farmer. How do we do that, and what does our faith tell us about that?”

About 60 of conference’s participants were farmers or worked in agribusiness, Ennis told The Catholic Spirit. Others were scientists, food experts, faith leaders and theologians.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda gave the keynote address March 21, telling participants that farmers hold “a unique role in the fulfillment of God’s plan.”

He pointed to St. John Paul II’s 1979 Mass at Living History Farms near Des Moines, Iowa, in the midst of five other stops — all in metropolitan areas — as an indication of the Church’s esteem for farmers and agriculture.

He quoted the pontiff from the Mass: “While it is true here that farming today provides an economic livelihood for the farmer, still it will always be more than an enterprise of profit-making. In farming, you cooperate with the Creator in the very sustenance of life on earth. … You who are farmers today are stewards of a gift from God which was intended for the good of all humanity.”

Archbishop Hebda acknowledged the difficulties many farmers face, as well as the complexities of agricultural production and its environmental impact, but he said challenges should be faced with hope. He encouraged deeper reflection on agriculture as a vocation and quoted from “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on caring for creation.

He also spoke about the root of vocation — Latin’s “vocare,” “to call” — and noted that what naturally follows is “obedire,” to listen.

“To refer to the vocation of an agricultural leader means someone who is called and then also listens,” he said. “The commitment to agriculture is a vocation given by God, a unique and privileged way of life. Indeed, of all the occupations undertaken by men and women, the task of ‘tilling and keeping the earth’ reaches to the depths of our relationships with God the Creator, with creation and with all of humanity.”

Repairing the social fabric

During the panel on pastoral life, Father Mastey said that as the duck-watcher intimated, rural life can be isolating. There used to be four farms on a square-mile of land, but by the 1990s, on average there was only one farm building in that same space, with no guarantee of it being occupied, he said. Because people are “busier and busier,” the social structure that once held rural life together has unraveled, and the economy makes it difficult for young people to take over family farms, if they even want to.

Ministering in rural areas should be rooted in building relationships that understand people’s connection to their land, he said. During Minnesota’s warmer months, he holds a weekly Tuesday evening outdoor Mass at his parishioners’ homes, and he asks them to introduce themselves and their land — how they came to call it home — as well as their families. The liturgies bring people together, he said.

Father Mastey also turns outdoor excursions into ministries, so he’s known to offer canoeing ministry, fishing ministry and hiking ministry. These retreats open the door to relationships, he said.

“The pastoral life is really about connecting the dots and relationship and realizing that God is in all these places,” he said.

Sister Nickel, a member of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, who holds doctoral degrees in liturgy and agronomy, described her former work teaching liturgy to seminarians at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and her current work with parish planning in the Diocese of Sioux City. As demographics and finances cause dioceses to consider merging and closing rural parishes, the process needs to include Church leaders listening to Catholics affected by those decisions, she said.

“The task for pastors and parishes is not to create community but to reveal community,” she said. “By our common baptism, we all participate in the mystical body of Christ. We are all members of the people of God, the Church.”

In her parish planning work, Sister Nickel has spent time listening to rural parishes at risk for closure, and she has helped Church leaders and parishioners change their perspective from criticism to hope, and from financial concerns to faith, she said.

Shifting demographics and parish merging and closings have “a dramatic effect on community and communion,” she added. “Change can affect a vision, or, with the proper perspective of faith, it can be an occasion to bring a deeper and real communion among the faithful and their pastor. Most often, people just need to be heard.”

Called to listen

The panel of faith leaders was moderated by Christopher Thompson, director of the Center for Theological Formation at St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity in St. Paul and author of the recently published “The Joyful Mystery: Field Notes Toward a Green Thomism” about understanding the world as God’s creation. He and Ennis drafted the document “Vocation of the Agricultural Leader: Integrating Faith with Agriculture and the Environment,” published in 2016 by CRL and the Vatican-based International Catholic Rural Association.

The document’s ideas undergirded the conference, the second of its kind hosted by CRL. The first conference was held in 2014. CRL also participated in a similar conference in Milan in 2015 organized by the International Catholic Rural Association. In addition to running CRL, Ennis currently serves as the international organization’s president.

Ennis told The Catholic Spirit that he hoped participants gained an understanding of why the concept of vocation is vital to agriculture. The importance of listening — including farmers’ listening with humility to the needs of the natural world, as well as listening to God’s will in hard times — was a reoccurring theme, he said.

But, he said, agricultural leaders also need to be “invited” to a relationship with God through caring for his creation, not “indicted” for practices that don’t reflect their work as a vocation, such as engaging in unsustainable farming methods or relating to animals — and even people such as farm workers — only as “production units.”

“The Church has a voice in these conversations because you’re dealing with human beings: their response to God, their care for creation [as] God’s gift,” Ennis said.

And while pastors serving rural areas need to understand that relationship, so do scientists and policy makers working in agriculture, he said.

“We really want also to speak into the scientific and agriculture science sector that this [farming] isn’t just a secular activity,” he said. “There’s something beautiful because you’re engaging creation and you’re providing food, and it is an ancient vocation. It’s not just another transaction.”

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