An advocate for Catholics living in rural settings said it is unfortunate that this group sometimes feels like second-class citizens, and cautioned that the Church neglects them at her own peril.
“The Church as dioceses and archdioceses, are primarily focused on urban areas, where a bulk of the population lives. But there are still many in rural communities, and often they are, I have to say, feeling like second-class citizens, they’re not getting the attention,” Jim Ennis, head of Catholic Rural Life, told CNA in a recent interview.
Catholic Rural Life, founded in 1923, exists primarily to minister to these rural Catholics in America. It does this chiefly through setting up lay ministries to catechize parishioners and educate them on Catholic social teaching.
The percentage of rural dwellers has shrunk to less than 20 percent of the U.S. populace, but the countryside is still critical for the life of the Church, Ennis maintains.
“We think that rural communities serve a purpose, they serve the church,” he said. “And if we neglect those rural communities, we neglect them at our peril.”
He pointed to a recent CRL interview with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who said the Church cannot survive without strong rural parishes.
“He said, ‘Jim, we the Catholic Church are committing suicide if we ignore the rural communities, because that’s where a lot of our vocations have come from in the past and many still come from rural communities’,” Ennis explained.
The group was initially called the National Catholic Rural Life Conference and was founded in 1923 by Fr. Edwin V. O’Hara, who grew up on a dairy farm in rural Minnesota. When Fr. O’Hara served as a chaplain in World War I, he noticed a lack of catechesis among many American soldiers hailing from the countryside.
“There he saw a lot of new soldiers coming on the front lines and facing death and facing these really, really challenging circumstances, and many of them were Catholic but they were unformed in their faith, and many of them were coming from rural communities,” Ennis explained.
“So when he [Fr. O’Hara] returned to the States, he dedicated himself to wanting to catechize rural communities and evangelize rural communities, especially to strengthen the Catholic Church in rural communities, which at that time half the population lived in rural communities.”
The ministry continues today through lay leadership programs promoting Catholic social teaching in rural parishes. These programs are active in three cities in the Upper Midwest.
“We have fewer church resources, fewer priests in rural communities. You need lay men and women to step up and to become laborers in the harvest,” Ennis said. “And to share Christ, and to share the hope and redemption, to share the forgiveness, the truth of grace and forgiveness in the midst of a very challenging world to live in.”
In these programs, small groups of parishioners will convene to read and discuss Scripture, papal letters, and the Catechism. “It starts with conversion of heart,” Ennis said. “And that’s the part of this lay leadership training is really continuing to pray that the Holy Spirit will work in ways to open up men and women to Christ and to His teaching, and then applying that in rural communities.”
There is no one specific rural spirituality that Catholic Rural Life tries to focus on, Ennis told CNA. However, he did point to the Blessed Virgin Mary as a good patron of rural families.
“I’m most moved by, frankly, the Virgin Mary and her humility and her sense of being so small and yet the Lord using her in such a large way. In the same way, rural communities often feel so small, so remote, so obscure, and yet the Lord uses it in such a powerful way,” he explained.
“Because that’s where our food comes from, that’s how people are fed. And without food, there’s no life. And in the same way, the Virgin Mary, without her, we don’t have Christ.”
While rural life is not without its challenges, it can also be very rewarding, Ennis maintained.
“I think one of the things you recognize right away when you’re traveling to rural communities is how close they are to the land. How close they are to, and dependent upon, the weather. And many in agriculture for sure are – there are very few atheists in agriculture. Because you’re constantly praying,” he said.
Ennis explained that although the countryside faces many problems similar to urban areas like drug abuse, poverty, and poor education, families can also have a quality of life not found elsewhere.
“But within the rural too, there are some great family values when families work together and pray together. And you still see multiple generations on the farm and that can often promote values and a sense of relationships and connectedness that you don’t always see in other places.”
This is Part One of a two-part feature on Catholic Rural Life. Part Two will focus on the spiritual and agricultural challenges facing rural America, and how CRL is ministering to those problems.