Rural America is ‘the natural arena for the lay apostolate,’ says Cardinal Dolan

ST. PAUL, MINN. (OSV NEWS) — The late Bishop Edwin Vincent O’Hara, founder of Catholic Rural Life, was “perhaps the most influential leader in Catholic agrarianism,” New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan said at a celebration of the organization’s 100th anniversary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

CRL is a national organization based in St. Paul that seeks to promote rural life in America through a wide array of initiatives, which include supporting Catholic education and providing formation for Catholic pastors.

Reflecting on Bishop O’Hara’s legacy

The May 8 anniversary event, titled “Rejoicing in the Harvest,” drew CRL supporters from across the nation to hear Cardinal Dolan address the organization’s history and ongoing mission.

In his lecture, which was based on his 1992 book “Some Seed Fell on Good Ground,” Cardinal Dolan outlined the life and mission of Bishop O’Hara and identified continued needs of rural communities.

Bishop O’Hara grew up as the youngest of eight children on a family farm in Lanesboro, Minnesota. As he studied for the priesthood at St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, which he entered in 1900, he grew in awareness of the many challenges facing rural communities, including a lack of Catholic schools, pressure to move to the city and the threat of bigger farms buying up smaller ones, the cardinal said.

“According to this farm boy-turned-priest, there was no greater challenge facing the church in the United States than the strengthening of rural life,” he said.

“Year after year, some of the brightest and strongest young men were abandoning the land. That hemorrhage, Bishop O’Hara said, would prove fatal to the church and the nation, and to heal it would be his top priority,” Cardinal Dolan said.

Embracing rural life

Although Bishop O’Hara worked a century ago, the cardinal said, many of his concerns about the rural church in America continue to be germane.

“The threats to small family farms by agribusiness are still towering,” Cardinal Dolan said, adding that these numerous issues need to be addressed with a robust understanding of “Christian personalism.”

“All problems today in society come from a faulty understanding of the human person. If we get the anthropology right — that we are children of God made in his image and likeness, worthy of dignity and respect, whose life is worth the precious blood of our Savior and is destined for all eternity — if we get that view of the person right, everything else works out,” Cardinal Dolan said.

Organizations such as CRL are vital to establishing Christian personalism, he said.

“A new challenge today is that the volunteer organizations upon which rural life depended are no longer vibrant,” he said. “We need to see the countryside as the natural arena for the lay apostolate.”

Msgr. James Shea, president of the University of Mary in North Dakota, also spoke at the May 8 event about rural life, which he said is a “way of life which is worth fighting for, worth preserving.” Msgr. Shea grew up on a dairy farm, where he learned to drive a tractor at age 7. He said that his “whole priesthood was formed (on) that farm.”

Msgr. Shea tempered the inclination of many urbanites to idealize country living.

“There is no room for nostalgia,” he said. “God is not in the future, which is the age of anxiety, or the past, which is the age of regret. He is in the present.”

Expanding the mission

Many organizations collaborate with CRL to expand its mission. Foremost among them is St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul, where CRL has its offices. Seminarians attend a weeklong rural ministry practicum and a day on a farm, where they learn about farming equipment.

Led by Jim Ennis, executive director, CRL has a network of 30 chapters nationwide — a figure that the organization hopes to double over the next five years, especially at colleges and universities. Currently Kansas State University is home to CRL’s only campus chapter. Students from the chapter attended the May 8 event to learn more about CRL’s ongoing initiatives.

Among them was Elizabeth Wright, founding member of the campus chapter at Kansas State. Wright grew up on a farm in Olsburg, Kansas, where she showed pigs in local competitions and raised goats.

“The speakers were very enlightening about the importance of rural life and how it is something that God has given us,” Wright said in an interview with The Catholic Spirit, the news outlet of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. “It is such a gift that we get to cultivate the land and provide food for people.”

Wright, who now works as a communications and marketing specialist for the College of Agriculture at Kansas State, said she never wants to live in a big city.

“It is a very spiritual experience to go back to the farm,” she said. “(There is) just the fervent hope that God is going to provide.”

Among many other initiatives, CRL supports Native Americans through scholarships and in their efforts to preserve wild rice.

The event promoted CRL’s capital campaign, “Sowing Seeds for Faith and Growth,” which aims to raise $5 million over the next five years to expand its programs, chapters and conferences.

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