Iron sharpens iron at the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering

By Catholic Rural Life on February 13, 2015

Rural Outreach and Ministry

Jim Ennis (back right) with students from the University of St. Thomas and representatives from the Minnesota Catholic Conference. (credit to Minnesota Catholic Conference)

This past week, I had the privilege of attending the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering (CSMG) for the sixth time. It’s a remarkable event, which brings together over 500 diocesan social ministry directors. These are the people who are putting the Church’s social teaching into action at the ground level.

The CSMG also includes leaders from national Catholic organizations and non-profits, such as Catholic Rural Life, Catholic Relief Services, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Together, these various groups are stronger than when we’re apart. As Proverbs says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” At the CSMG, people who are passionate about the Church and its social teaching have the incredible opportunity to come together share models of best practice, as we consider how to address issues of poverty and injustice in our society.

Perhaps the CSMG’s greatest strength is its diversity, diversity in terms of experience, culture, focus, and charism. The gathering represented people from every part of the country  working in all sorts of different communities. Having the opportunity to hear them share their stories not only gave me ideas about how CRL can strengthen its own work, it also left me feeling inspired. In our work to apply the teachings of Christ and His Church, we’re not alone. The Church may be big, and include people of different colors and traditions of expression, but we’re all in this together.

For Catholic Rural Life in particular, it’s a blessing to have an annual opportunity to meet with rural ministry directors from 25 different dioceses in one place at one time. We come together not only to share ideas, but to pray together and renew friendships.

The collaborative nature of the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering was very evident at the pre-gathering luncheon hosted by Catholic Rural Life. At this gathering on Saturday morning, I had the opportunity to present on the Faith, Food & the Environment symposium to individuals who were unable to attend the symposium in Minnesota this past November.

The session then turned into a focus group, where those present shared their reactions and perspectives with me. This was especially invaluable, as the group consisted of diocesan officials representing different agricultural “stakeholders,” such as migrant workers, family farmers, and big ag employees. Their different perspectives will help Catholic Rural Life develop a set of resources that will be practical and relatable to a wide-range of people working in agriculture.

One example of the focus group’s impact had to do with the eventual name of the set of resources we’re developing from the Faith, Food & the Environment project. For months, we’ve been calling this The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader. But as several members of our focus group pointed out, many people working in agriculture don’t necessarily consider themselves leaders, and might think the associated resources don’t apply to them–which is certainly not the case! But it definitely gave me food for thought as CRL continues to develop this essential and applicable resource.

Here are some other highlights from my time at the CSMG:

  • Of the 500 or so people gathered for CSMG, 100 of them were young, college-aged people. They brought an incredible dynamism to the gathering! To some of us who have been working in Catholic social ministry for a number of years, it’s inspiring to see a new generation of leaders show such a passion for Christ, the Church, and its social work.
  • On Tuesday, the final day of the CSMG, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz (the current president of the USCCB), celebrated a “send off” Mass to conclude the gathering. From the Mass, hundreds of groups went to Capitol Hill to meet with their legislators and share the concerns of the Catholic Church. I go with a different state delegation every year, but this year went with the folks from Minnesota, including six students form the University of St. Thomas. I was really impressed by these young people, many who shared personal stories that connected with the social justice issues were discussed with legislators, like immigration and child nutrition.
  • There were a number of helpful workshops at the CSMG, but it was about more than just technique. The gathering inspired hope and helped revitalize my sense of mission. It reminded me of the connection between faith, education, and advocacy. And the presence of a number of Masses and opportunities for worship underscored what it was all about–serving Christ by serving the poor and marginalized, and exalting him through our ministry.

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