The dignity of the human person is established in spiritual and moral principles that root us in God our Creator. Living close to the land, working with the land and the creatures of the earth, wild and domestic, helps to nourish the life we are called to live in close communion with God. The land was created for cultivation and such tilling of the earth is good for the soul. The earth is meant to support humanity, not just in providing food and drink, but to supply all that nurtures the entire complexity of the human person—body, mind and soul. Just as healthy human existence cannot be attained individually, as it is lived only in communion and community, so is the relationship of the human family in the context of creation.
These are just some of the reasons I was pleased to accept a position on the board of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) and then humbly agreed to accept the nomination and election as their new president. During this year, the NCRLC is celebrating its 90th year. We were founded in 1923 by a priest who had a great love for the faith and a keen insight regarding an effort to bolster the faith of Catholics living in rural communities. Father Edwin V. O’Hara, later to become Archbishop O’Hara, saw the great collaboration to be made between faith, farming and community in the rural parts of the United States.
In his first encyclical, Lumen Fidei, Pope Francis made a similar connection between faith and family when he noted the need for “cooperation of church and family in passing on the faith” (LF # 43). This is just one of the ways the NCRLC works in support of rural families.
Another goal of the NCRLC board during this 90th anniversary year is to raise awareness about the vision and mission of the organization. I would like to share that vision with you in this article and invite this readership to help us spread the good news about the good work of NCRLC.
What does NCRLC do? We advocate. We educate. We inspire on behalf of Catholics in rural communities, for the betterment of the Church, and the betterment of America.
We advocate. We work hard to influence those elements of the political and social order that have direct impact on the quality of living for those in rural communities. We keep our membership and our allies informed and engaged through our work on a variety of issues such as the Farm Bill, rural development, sustainable practices and environmental policy. We speak directly to policy makers about the concerns of rural Catholics and the fundamental vision of Catholic social teaching. At heart of these concerns is the persistent problem of poverty, which extends to hunger and hopelessness. Working together with many other faith and advocacy groups, NCRLC joins a great chorus to change public policy and focus more intently on the least of us. Those who hunger, those dispossessed from the land and those who must migrate for a better life are in the prayers and actions of NCRLC.
In addition to speaking on behalf of Catholics to the secular order, we are also a means of communication to the bishops and share information with the various constituencies of the Church about the issues within rural communities. Our board is comprised of several bishops from across the United States as well as researchers, policy makers, and farmers. Together we grapple with rural ministry concerns that range from the struggles of rural parish life to the widespread problems of low-wage farmworkers, industrial agriculture, environmental degradation and unfair globalization. By working with both the public and ecclesial sectors, NCRLC provides an essential link in the chain of Catholic advocacy and efficacy.
NCRLC members benefit by having the confidence that their concerns are being raised in both ecclesial and political sectors in a manner that is both informed and Catholic.
We educate. NCRLC sponsors educational initiatives within the university setting and the general public. We teach leadership seminars offered to seminarians preparing to be pastors and laity who seek a life of service. We are expanding our efforts towards university instruction on the subjects of stewardship and sustainability. We have sponsored publications and research within the academic setting, at both the national and international level.
Others, too, are educated by the efforts of the NCRLC. Policy statements, information brochures, updates, and announcements are regularly prepared and distributed to our constituencies. Several thousand individuals access the NCRLC website on a regular basis. NCRLC members benefit by having access to timely and informed opinion on complex matters, be this the Farm Bill, genetic engineering of plants, fracking or climate change.
We inspire. We are a source of hope in a world full of challenges, reminding rural communities of the treasure (once discovered in a corner of a field) for which they have given everything — namely, Jesus Christ. At its core NCRLC is about announcing the gospel of Jesus Christ and his church, first as a means to our everlasting happiness and joy, and second as a catalyst for a more noble and just form of living on this earth — with a sincere love for Christ and His creation. NCRLC is committed to raising hearts and minds within the context of rural living to the Lordship of Christ, the Creator and Redeemer of the world. We support prayer initiatives, and supply spiritual materials. We annually recognize women and men who embody the Church’s teachings in their rural communities, and we share models of effective rural ministry with our national network. We support priests and deacons in rural ministry with education and information. We support rural ministry directors and provide catechetical materials to priests, deacons and lay leaders.
NCRLC members benefit by knowing that their contributions and prayers go directly to building up the body of Christ, supporting future priests and lay faithful.
In sum, by supporting NCRLC, members have the peace of mind that comes with knowing that they have built up the body of Christ in rural communities … for the betterment of our church, for the betterment of America.
Most Reverend Paul D. Etienne is Bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., and president of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.