Catholic Rural Life

“A large and busy family unified by working together on a family farm," says Bishop Paul D. Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyoming, "is a good worth promoting and protecting."

(© TTstudio/

(© TTstudio/

“Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the bread we offer you: fruit of the earth and work of human hands, it will become for us the bread of life.” — Prayer at the preparation of the gifts

You gain special insights when the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered in the heartland of America—or any place where farming is the foundation of a culture. For Catholics whose vocation is feeding others, the gifts of bread and wine brought to the altar are not commodities from a religious supply store. They are products of soil and sweat. They exist because of business acumen, tough choices, and unyielding trust in nature, neighbors, family, and God.

The Catholic Church concerns herself with such work. She worries over the health of water and soil, the treatment of animals, the economic and nutritional value of crops, and the fair and efficient distribution of food. Most especially she embraces and supports the families and small towns that feed the world.

Farming as a sacred profession

“A large and busy family unified by working together on a family farm is a good worth promoting and protecting,” said His Excellency, Bishop Paul D. Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

The bishop made these comments earlier this month at a dinner in a St. Paul, Minnesota hotel. He spoke to other clergy as well as religious, theologians, farmers, ranchers, and their supporters.

“Society depends on the country and the farm for the produce that feeds the nation—the world,” he said. “Even more, it needs the wholesome vitality of the families produced by rural living. There is a sacramental nature to living and working in a rural setting. Farming provides a common purpose and a natural setting that helped pull and hold a family together.”

Bishop Etienne is the president of Catholic Rural Life, a small, energetic non-profit working with and for America’s farmers and rural communities. Its mission is “to apply the teachings of Jesus Christ for the social, economic, and spiritual development of rural America with responsibility for the care of God’s creation.”

In 1923, Fr. Edwin V. O’Hara founded the organization in St. Louis, Missouri. Born on a family farm in Minnesota, Fr. O’Hara met many Catholic soldiers from rural America while he served as an Army chaplain in World War I. Few of them knew their faith well. This prompted the pastor and future archbishop to teach and support the faithful in the places that those soldiers had prayed to return to one day.

“The work of faith formation and catechesis is one of the areas still of importance to Catholic Rural Life today,” said Bishop Etienne. As in the wider community, “in farming and the business world of agriculture, there is a need for ordinary people in their day-to-day lives to call upon their faith in making decisions that impact the use of the land and environment and the lives of many workers.”

Jim Ennis knows this from his own experiences. He worked on farms in California during college and then in the corporate offices of the food industry. Today he is the executive director of Catholic Rural Life.

“In corporate America you see a lot of ugly stuff,” he said. “Men and women are pushed and pressured to create stockholder value—to create the largest return on investment and short-term profits.”

He said that large companies will compel smaller ones to drop prices to meet consumer expectations and profit projections. “And where is that going to come from? Often it’s tightening the screws on suppliers. So, the pressure is immense [on growers, ranches, and others]. And what happens is people check their faith at the door, roll up their sleeves, and try to survive.”

But, he adds, “there is a better way.”

This includes “taking your faith and your relationship with God seriously. To do things differently. To treat people with dignity. To be smart and savvy in your business dealings but not to do things illegally—not to lie, cheat, to cut corners that hurt someone else in a very clear way.”

He said that living in accordance with the Gospel doesn’t mean foregoing competitiveness. “There is a just way of doing things. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out of business.”

Pope Francis stressed these and other concerns last week in an address to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, based in Rome. 

“It is painful to see that the struggle against hunger and malnutrition is hindered by ‘market priorities,’ and the ‘primacy of profit,’ which have reduced foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation, also of a financial nature.” Further along he said “if we believe in the principle of the unity of the human family, based on the common paternity of God the Creator, and in the fraternity of human beings, no form of political or economic pressure that exploits the availability of foodstuffs can be considered acceptable.”

Good growing in Iowa

Ron Rosmann farms 700 acres a few miles south of Westphalia, Iowa. Back in the 1970s his mom and dad, Ray and Ellen, gave their sons portions of the family farm. Now Ron’s sons help him carry on the traditions of family, farming, and their Catholic faith that German settlers brought to the area in the nineteenth century.

“I never looked back,” Rosmann said about his decision to veer from plans for advanced degrees and to instead steward his family farm.

For a decade Rosmann worked the land like most everyone else—following “conventional” farming practices with chemical fertilizers. Today he is one of a handful of farmers using and studying sustainable, organic techniques, such as crop rotation and cover crops. In doing so he has forfeited significant subsidies from federal farming programs. But he has gained peace of mind.

“Lots of people don’t think this way of farming works. But my yields are at or better than county average,” he said. His farm is also greener year round, which even an untrained eye can spot from aerial photos.

Rosmann’s desire to farm with the environment and people in mind comes in large part because of how his parents raised him—“that we boys had a real responsibility for caring for others.” In a farming community that includes caring not just for neighbors, but also for the earth.

Another influence on Rosmann was the longtime pastor of St. Boniface Parish in Westphalia, Fr. Hubert E. Duren. “He helped build a model rural community,” Rosmann said. “A community based on hard work and cooperation.”

Rosmann sits on the board of Catholic Rural Life. He says the organization “understands the big picture—how faith, food, and the environment are all tied together. They understand the importance of community—rural community—and the importance of the Church in rural communities. … Loving God includes all creation. Loving neighbor means we want to not try to keep gaining more wealth and using natural resources. We want to not be just consumers. We want to be caregivers and stewards.”

Supporting a vocation

Earlier this month, Rosmann traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota to attend Catholic Rural Life’s “Faith, Food, and the Environment” symposium, a gathering of some seventy clergy, theologians, and members of farming and food industries from throughout the United States as well as observers from Italy and the Philippines.

This event was where Bishop Etienne made his remarks. Also attending was Fr. Michael Czerny S.J. of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace—the arm of the Holy See most involved with food security. Fr. Czerny delivered addresses on behalf the council’s president, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. (The cardinal was slated to attend but days before the event was asked by Pope Francis to focus on the needs of West Africa as it suffered through outbreaks of Ebola.)

Central to Faith, Food, and the Environment was a small document about ethical practices for people working in business—practices that the Rosmann family lives daily not far from the small white church of St. Boniface parish. The document, “Vocation of the Business Leader,” was issued by the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice in 2012. People have since wondered if documents like it could be penned for other sectors—like government or agriculture.

Dr. Michael Naughton, Director, John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota helped develop and write Vocation of the Business Leader. He spoke at the symposium about the natural links between it and the work of farmers and ranchers.

“Coming out of the Church, this document on business as a vocation taps into our deepest roots of the spiritual and moral life,” Dr. Naughton told Catholic World Report. “It stresses that we need habits of receptivity if we are going to achieve the good we set out to do in the world,” he said. “That receptivity especially includes time for prayer, solitude, reading scripture, and of course worship.”

When Ennis was given a copy of Vocation of the Business Leader in 2012 at an international meeting on rural issues, he suggested to Cardinal Turkson that there is a need for a similar document for agricultural workers—“especially for young people coming out of college, people of faith who don’t want to check their faith at the door.” The cardinal agreed.

Assisting with the project is Dr. Christopher Thompson, also of St. Thomas University. Dr. Thompson is the Director of Theological Formation at the Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity and he sits on the board of Catholic Rural Life. He is a farmer’s theologian, helping future pastors and lay leaders carry on the work of caring for America’s rural communities.

“Of the 244 Catholic degree granting institutions of higher learning within the United States,” said Dr. Thompson during his talk at Faith, Food, and the Environment, “not one offers a program of study in Agriculture.

“This is why we need to have a conference of this sort,” he added. “We have a generation of students disconnected [from] the land and an institution of higher education unprepared to address it.”

As for the business of agriculture, Dr. Thompson offered this challenge:

“If we hope together to develop an authentic human ecology,” he said, referring to a term used by Pope Francis and his two immediate predecessors, “it will be necessary to respect the order of creation and respect the creatures whom God has placed under our care. God exercises dominion over the entire creation and we participate in that dominion and we therefore are called to live within the parameters of that partnership.”

That concept—that there are parameters in a relationship with God and His created order—comes with moral implications and high stakes.

Consider some of the issues in play: In developed nations like the United States there are growing worries about the impacts of modern farming practices on the health and viability of topsoil. There is concern about how pesticides harm humans—born and unborn. And across the globe, about a third of the food we grow is lost or wasted due to various inefficiencies in management, storage, and transportation, as well as rejection by consumers (and thus markets) for aesthetic purposes, such as crooked carrots or French Fries that are too small. And of course, not finishing our meals adds to the problem of waste.

While there are technical and economic solutions to such problems, the Church is reminding us of a prior, foundational consideration.

In a homily given in 1935, Catholic Rural Life founder Fr. O’Hara said that “[t]he burning concern of the Catholic Church with agriculture arises from the altogether unique relationship which exists universally between the agricultural occupation and the central institution of Christian, nay, of all, civilization; namely, the family.”

At the symposium’s concluding dinner, Bishop Etienne recalled a visit with ranchers in his diocese. He spoke about what it means to be called by God to a vocation of the land. Later, one of the wives came up to him.

“Bishop,” she said, “you are the first representative of the Church who has recognized the sacrifices that we have made to raise our families on the ranch. This is the first time we have ever heard the Church tell us they appreciate our way of life and what we do.”

That interchange about sums up the mission of Catholic Rural Life. For the good of a nation and for individual souls, it is a voice of support for rural Americans, helping to share the embrace of the Church one farm, one ranch, and one family at a time.

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About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."