The Luminous Vocation of Feeding the World: Faith, Food and the Environment, Day 2

The following article was written by Bill Patenaude for Catholic Ecology. It is re-posted here with his permission.

To understand the second day of the Faith, Food, and the Environment Symposium, one must consider that it was a Thursday, the day traditionally reserved for the Luminous Mysteries when reciting the Rosary.

This is important because—while unscripted and not noted during the event—each of those mysteries in some way illuminate what happened during these past hours and days.

The Baptism of the Lord

The symposium has been referred to in this blog and elsewhere as “Faith, Food, and the Environment.” But it has a subtitle: “The Vocation of the Agricultural Leader.”

Its intent has been to hear from an array of voices related to agriculture, to ask tough questions and ponder tougher answers. The results of this dialog will be used in an international symposium on the same subject in 2015 in Milan, Italy.

The goal of all this is to compile a document on the vocation of the agricultural leader, one similar to the recently issued document by the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace, “The Vocation of the Business Leader.”

Central to the conversations these past few days has been what it means to be a person of faith who makes a living by feeding others. Central to that is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ who makes a living by feeding others. And Central to that is what it means to be baptized.

Answers came from all directions—sometimes unexpectedly.

“We were meant to eat from the tree of life—creation,” said Dr. Frederick L. Kirschenmann, Distinguished Fellow at the Leopold Center. “And we were told not to consume the tree of knowledge. We are now at the point where we are eating from the tree of knowledge, because we think we know better: We aim to operate at maximum efficiency for short-term economic return.”

Speaker after speaker bemoaned the commodification of food and the binary, business-like calculations that set prices and determine distribution patterns when in fact food is an inalienable human right, as Pope Francis has noted recently. (Did you know that some forty percent of the food we grow goes to waste, and most of that happens at the farms simply because buyers (like you and me) typically refuse any imperfect product. So farmers often don’t even bother to harvest any fruit or produce with any blemish!)

It was generally agreed that the baptized must bring their faith with them in their labors and deliberations. For the agricultural sector that means business can no longer be looked at as business as usual.

“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” (Mark 1:11). These words by the Father to the Son at the baptism of the Lord echo the words we wish to hear at our judgment. Through baptism, as adopted sons and daughters of God, we should wish to please the Father (with the help of the Spirit) by living our lives at the service of others and by cooperating with His creative activity.

For the baptized, then, being an agricultural leader includes living and working as a service for the other—of God, certainly, and of neighbor, whom we are to love sacrificially, and the created order as well. As in any vocation, those in agriculture must be able to make a living. They must be able to raise their own family. But they must do so with the common good in mind. That is, by seeking the well-being of their fellow human and that of the environment.

The Wedding at Cana

The great beauty of the Luminous Mysteries—which were a gift to the Church by Saint John Paul II—is their focus on the sacramental nature of the Catholic faith. That is, each mystery is a reflection within the Gospels of God’s free gift of grace elevating some part of creation.

These notions have also been themes (whether by accident or design) throughout the symposium. It has been stressed by most if not all speakers that creation and its ability to provide for human life is a great gift. We must treat and use this gift with loving care.

“Back home our fish our contaminated,” said speaker Dr. Clifford Canku, an elder of the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota Oyate and assistant professor of practice for Dakota Studies at North Dakota State University. “I could go on and on about contamination of our environment. I just want to remind us that we are responsible to the creator for the natural gifts that we’ve been given. If you were given a gift from the creator you would cherish it. We must be responsible to the creator.”

Dr. Canku, an ordained Presbyterian minister, spoke about the Dakota understanding of nature as not something that is owned but something that is received, cared for, and shared.

Indeed, Dr. Canku said that within the Dakota tradition, all creation offers gifts that people incorporate into the entire person—or, better yet, people. Wild rice, for instance, is endowed with spiritual attributes, it is recounted in dreams, and it brings social aspects at harvest.

For Christians seeking to explore the meaning of vocation in the agricultural sector, we might think of laboring within creation as a transformative process, something like turning water into wine. After all, farmers take the gifts given to them and (with faith in God and His grace) cooperate in transforming it from the ordinary to the wonderful.

This means working with the ordinary cycles of nature, the ordinary plants and animals of the world, the ordinary water and sunlight, and the ordinary labor of human strength and skill. In doing so, the farmer—by the grace of God—becomes the means by which the ordinary becomes that which can nourish and satisfy the people of the earth.

The Proclamation of the Kingdom

One may not consider the preaching of the Gospel to be a miracle. But it is—and in extraordinary ways—because it is making Christ present in the world. This makes teaching and defending the faith an important vocation in itself for all baptized people. Indeed, preaching the Good News of the Kingdom should be the central vocation for all followers of Christ.

The need to teach the faith within rural communities was stressed in his address Thursday night by His Excellency Bishop Paul D. Etienne of Cheyenne, Wyoming and president of Catholic Rural Life. And during his dinner remarks, Executive Director James Ennis likewise shared that Catholic Rural Life offers programming and resources to teach about scripture, Church documents, and the catechism.

In calling attention to the 90th anniversary of Catholic Rural Life, Ennis recounted how the organization’s founder, Archbishop Edwin V. O’Hara, was eager to proclaim the Kingdom to rural America. This was largely because of his own realization as a chaplain in World War I that many of those from small farming communities seemed to have had few opportunities to know their faith well.

The Transfiguration

Christ revealed His glory ever so briefly to his closet followers so that they would grow in faith. Christ wished them to see things in a new light. How we see is a vital consideration in the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace booklet on the vocation of a business leader.

“…faith-based ‘servant leadership’ provides business leaders with a larger perspective and helps them to balance the demands of the business world with those of ethical social principles, illumined for Christians by the Gospel.” The booklet continues that a proper orientation of sight helps the business leader—or for our purposes, the agricultural leader—see “the challenges and opportunities in the world of business [which] are complicated by factors both good and evil” including modern factors of globalization, communications, finance, and cultural changes.

Simply stated, engaging in the affairs of the world requires us to see like Christ—to see the glory of the world as God intends it to be.

It means more, however. Seeing like Christ requires us to see each other the way Christ does—and this will have profound implications on the way those in agriculture go about their business of buying, growing, hiring, selling, and doing it all sustainably.

The Institution of the Eucharist

Dr. Canku’s teachings on the way of life of the Dakota people was itself a lesson on community. His words about how American settlers treated them was likewise a lesson in what community is not.

Following Dr. Canku was Dr. Craig A. Hassel, professor of food science at the University of Minnesota. He noted that the introductory letter for the symposium by the university’s president noted that “just 150 years ago, this was farm country” owned by Union Army veteran William Finn.

“But fifty years before that it was Dakota,” said Dr. Hassel, noting that that information was not in the letter. “For many generations this land was inhabited and cared for by native peoples. It was something like the Garden of Eden. Land ownership was as foreign to them as owning a family member.”

Such communal implications, which in part the symposium was seeking to explore, was noted more than once by Fr. Michael Czerny, S.J., assistant to Peter Cardinal Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Peace and Justice.

Fr. Czerny challenged participants at Thursday’s concluding dinner by reading from Pope Francis’s address to a gathering of some 150 members of the very poor—specifically, garbage pickers, day laborers, displaced migrants, and others. “The bottom billions,” Fr. Czerny said.

The Holy Father invited these representatives to the Vatican to listen to them—to listen!—and to assure them that their concerns—which include agricultural reform—have been heard. Many of these concerns, the Holy Father noted, will be found in his upcoming encyclical on the environment.

Fr. Czerny’s challenge was twofold and, I would add, quite in line with how Catholics should understand Holy Communion.

He asked that going forward the work of understanding the vocation of agricultural leaders be seen (there’s that word again) as including the marginalized, many of whom are either agricultural workers themselves or are impacted disproportionately by the business of agriculture. His second challenge was to follow Pope Francis’s lead by having future deliberations include representatives of the “bottom billions” during discussions and the writing of a document that will discuss the vocation of agricultural leaders.

In other words, invite them and include them at the table.

Will this happen? Stay tuned. But it should be noted that Fr. Czerny received a rousing standing ovation.

The symposium wraps up tomorrow with a morning of reflections on the past two days of formal talks. Catholic Rural Life Executive Director Ennis will offer Catholic Ecology his impressions on these three days after all is said and done. Stay tuned for that, too.

For now, let us entrust the work of Catholic Rural Life and its partners to the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary. And let us pray a decade or two for those engaged in the work ahead.