What is the nature of rural ministry? How does closeness to nature and the land give a rural parish a unique connection to Creation and the Creator? How can a rural pastor make these connections to life in the Holy Spirit?
Catholic Rural Life has played an important role in rural ministry over our many decades of service to rural communities. Our role comes forth from our lasting concern with the land, God’s greatest material gift to His people, and how the land relates to our Christian faith.
Out of the land we as human beings were fashioned, and on the land we depend for our continued existence in this world. This is as true now as it was in 1946, when Bishop Peter Bartholome of St. Cloud, Minn., spoke at length about “The Land and the Spirit” during a sermon at NCRLC’s (now CRL’s) national convention that year:
“By the land, man lives and breathes; for its products he expends his life’s energy. On the land depends the industry and commerce of the world. The land is basic to all the material activities of man. Through the land man is best able to work up to the fullest development of his nature as created by God. On the land man is closest to God’s creation and should therefore with greater facility work out his soul’s salvation.
“And at the end of his life the body of man again returns and becomes identified with the land. Truly there seems to be no relationship of man with material things so intimate as that of man with the earth.”1
Now into a new century and a worrying sense of our environmental foot print upon the earth, we need a new way to once again cultivate and use the land so that it is intimately bound up with the great mission of the Church: the glory of God and the salvation of souls.
As Catholics, we find our hope and salvation in the seven Sacraments. Guided by the Holy Spirit, these were instituted by our Lord, Jesus Christ, who taught us through agrarian parables and an intimate connection to the land and nature. The saving words and deeds of Jesus Christ are the foundation of what he would communicate in the Sacraments through the ministers of the Church.2
Sacraments of Initiation
The baptized are called to contribute to the sanctification of the world. This reality is what leads us to work to protect the life and dignity of all people and to care for God’s creation here on earth. As Pope Benedict XVI teaches: “The world is not something indifferent (or) raw material to be utilized as we see fit.” Instead, we see it as God’s creation. Our Baptism helps us see a “profound relationship” between our work here on earth and our future with Christ (Sacramentum Caritatis 92).
At Confirmation, we recommit to participate in the Church’s work and mission. We are strengthened and prepared to be active participants in the Church’s mission and to “bear witness to the Christian faith in words accompanied by deeds” (Catechism 1316). The Spirit sends us as workers in the vineyard and instruments of the Holy Spirit in renewing the earth and promoting God’s kingdom of justice and peace.
The Eucharist prepares us for mission. In the face of the sin and injustice we see in our communities and in our world, the Eucharist “plants a seed of living hope in our daily commitment to the work before us,” challenging us to live “Eucharistic” lives and affirming our role as men and women in various professions at different levels of society in “contributing with the light of the Gospel to the building of a more human world, a world fully in harmony with God’s plan” (Ecclesia de Eucharistia #20).
For our Eucharistic work, particular inspiration is taken from the theological reflections of Denis Edwards: “When the name of Christ is invoked over the bread and wine, the Creator Spirit leads us towards a way of feeling, living and acting as part of a global community of life. These signs are intrinsically rich in ecological meaning. They point us to the whole of creation. They locate us within a sacramental approach to the whole of life.”3
Sacraments at the Service of Communion
Pastoral ministry requires that ordained ministers, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, act to serve, gather, and transform. Priests should“animate pastoral action in the social field,” especially assisting lay Christians who are involved in political and social life (Compendium 539). Pastoral concern extends beyond the local Church; bishops and priests must also attend to problems facing the people of the world, “sharing their experiences” and “growing, above all, in solidarity towards the poor” (John Paul II, Ecclesia in America 39). CRL offers a Catholic rural ethic in the light of Catholic social teaching, and we also strive to provide resources and study guides for the critical social issues facing rural America.
The sacrament of Marriage is tied closely with family and the home, the place where each person learns “solidarity and communal responsibilities” (Catechism 2224). Parents train children, from childhood on, to recognize God’s love for all, to care for “the material and spiritual needs of their neighbor,” to share in common with others, and to be involved in the local community (Apostolicam Actuositatem 30). CRL believes strongly in the family farm way of life and seeks to preserve proprietary family farms as the foundation of our country.
Sacraments of Healing
While the priest is the minister of the sacrament of Penance, the whole Church community participates in the work of reconciliation (Ordo Paenitentiae). When we gather each Sunday, we call to mind our sins and intercede for one another. The Church is an instrument of conversion, calling all its members to love and reconciliation with God and neighbor. CRL sees this in our relationship to the land and those who work the land, seeking conversion in our ecological lives as well as spiritual ones.
While this final sacrament can bring physical healing, Anointing of the Sick is primarily about the healing of hope and of the spirit. Above all, the sacrament allows the person who is ill to unite more closely to Christ’s Passion. This gives suffering a new meaning: a participation in the saving work of Jesus. This is a powerful witness that is for the good of the whole Church (Catechism 1521-22).
The Holy Earth
Through the Sacraments, God shares his holiness with us so that we, in turn, can make the world holier. Catholic rural life can show us that by treating the earth rightly, we will treat one another rightly. That is our mission and our call to rural ministry.
1Taken from “The Land and the Spirit” sermon delivered during the national convention of NCRLC (now CRL), October 13, 1946, by Right Reverend Peter W. Bartholome, Bishop of St. Cloud.
3“Eucharist and Ecology” by Denis Edwards. WORSHIP, Vol. 82, #3; May 2008.