Recently I was on an airline flight and could not help overhearing a couple sitting right behind me playing a crossword puzzle together. The husband read out loud the question to his wife who was sitting across the aisle, “Who is Cain’s brother?” He added, “Hmm, I don’t know that one.” She responded, “Cain’s brother, I don’t know either? Let’s skip that one come back to it.” I was so tempted to turn around and give them the answer, but I wisely chose to let them work it out. As I sat there in my seat, I began to contemplate what happens to us when we forget our history; when we can no longer recall our Christian heritage? What happens when the creation narrative‑which the Church has been reading over the past several weeks in the Book of Genesis—is no longer our common narrative? What happens when we can no longer recall the narratives in Scripture and can no longer pass them on to our children or grandchildren? What are the implications?
These are important questions for reflection. Back in 2013 Pope Francis wrote about the effects of secularization—disassociation or separation from religious or spiritual concerns—on us as individuals and as a society in one of his brilliant letters, Evangelium Guadium, “The process of secularization tends to reduce the faith of the Church to the sphere of the private and personal. Furthermore, by completely rejecting the transcendent, it has produced a growing deterioration of ethics, a weakness of personal and collective sin, and a steady increase in relativism.” This process of secularization is slowly resulting in an ignorance of Scripture, of God, and of our own history. We, as individuals and as a society, are beginning to drift away from a common set of beliefs. Everything is relative. A phrase I often hear when talking with people I meet while traveling is, “You have your truth, Jim, and I have my truth”. We are becoming disconnected from a common purpose and narrative. Without a shared purpose or narrative, we lose our sense of identity.
This loss of a shared history and the disconnectedness from transcendent truths impacts the way we view all of life. Take food and agriculture for example. In Genesis God tells Adam to cultivate and care for land. Both Adam and Eve have a responsibility to grow food and care for the land. Farmers, ranchers, and all who are involved in agricultural production have this noble vocation that continues to this day. Most of us, however, have lost our connectedness to the land, to where our food comes from, and to the knowledge of how it is grown. Most of us simply put our trust in a food system that is no longer made up of personal relationships, farmer to consumer, or personal responsibility. It is impersonal. Even some farmers and ranchers I know are losing their connectedness to their noble calling and to the Creator who cares for them. This lack of connection and lack of relationship is leading to a loss of purpose and meaning in life.
One of the important roles of the Church is to continually remind us in every generation that there are transcendent truths. The mystery of Jesus Christ, his resurrection from the dead, and his healing of our broken relationships with God, with our fellow human beings, and with the land are life-transforming truths. We each have the responsibility to re-present these truths to the next generation in order to preserve our common story.
–James Ennis is the Executive Director for Catholic Rural Life. This essay originally appeared in the winter 2021 issue of Catholic Rural Life.