Bishop David Ricken joined a near-capacity church to pray for a fruitful farming season and to give thanks for family farmers. “It’s so good to be with so many of you who are close to the earth and work with the earth,” he told those in attendance. “What a great gift you are and yours is, in many ways, a vocation to serve the Lord.”
Bishop Ricken recognized two retired priests joining him for the Mass. They included Fr. John Hephner, whose great-great-grandfather welcomed a visiting priest to his home to celebrate the first Mass in Mackville, and Fr. Bill Rickert, 92, who has attended Rural Life Day Masses for 68 consecutive years.
Fr. Mike Betley, pastor of St. John-Sacred Heart Parish in Sherwood/St. John, St. Mary Parish, Hilbert, and St. Mary Parish, Stockbridge, who served as keynote speaker at a luncheon following Mass, also commended family farmers.
He said that 150 years ago, when the farming community of Sherwood cleared the land, one of the first things they did was build a church.
“That’s been our history here in the rural area,” he said. “Just kind of celebrating the connectedness of faith with the land, with the people and how important that was for them.” His message to those attending his presentation was one of appreciation. “For what they do, the great dignity they bring and the great faith that they have,” he said. “I really enjoy being in farming parishes because there’s something very unique about those farmers with their hope — and they gamble every year as they put the seed in the ground.”
In his homily, Bishop Ricken noted that Pope Francis, in his public addresses, has forged a strong bond with farmers. “One of the first things that Pope Francis said was that he wanted to remember and recognize the gift of creation from God and that we have a responsibility to steward the gift of creation from God,” said Bishop Ricken.
He said it was fitting that Pope Francis has emphasized creation as an early theme in his pontificate “and here we are at St. Edward’s in Mackville and we have creation depicted (in the stained glass windows) because you people are close to the earth.”
God has given farmers the gift of land to cultivate, said Bishop Ricken. “With that comes a tremendous gift and a great responsibility,” he said.
Not only do farmers provide for their own families, they also feed countless other people. “Think of all the people you are taking care of by providing milk and dairy products, sources of grain and food and feed,” he said. “Think of all the people you are keeping body and soul together because you are using the land” to grow crops and feed animals and people.
He said it is a miracle that a seed “disappears in the earth and through the sun, the water and just the right conditions, every year it (sprouts).”
Bishop Ricken said that the development of agribusiness and mega-farms have changed the farm landscape.
“I’m not speaking against that, except that we have to be very careful to maintain a balance,” he said. New technologies in farming still require a “respect for creation, a respect for our water supply, a respect for the land around us and to make sure that we don’t throw off the system of really having great respect for the land that God has given to us and the people that benefit from that land,” said Bishop Ricken.
“It’s not easy today to make all of these kinds of decisions and thank God we have the teaching of the church,” noted Bishop Ricken. “We have a moral code that we follow; principles and core values that we have to look at in making our decisions today, as everything has gotten so sophisticated.”
Whatever the future brings to farming, Bishop Ricken said he hopes what does not change are the values of the family farmer.
“Those farms should be sustaining and building family life,” he said. “But you and I know that, as the Holy Father said, if you push God out of your heart, mind and family, out of business dealings, out of farming, pretty soon it’s going to implode on us.” He said a good dose of humility is needed to keep farm values in the forefront.
Farmers live out the virtue of hope every spring, said Bishop Ricken. In doing so they must keep their faith strong.
“When you plant those seeds in the ground, when you take care of those animals, when you go buy your farm implements, you are exercising the virtue of hope because you are hoping that things will continue to grow, that God will provide,” he said. “You are trusting in God. You are having faith in God. Make sure you thank him for all of those gifts, super abundant blessings that we have in this country.”
He urged farm families to emulate St. Isidore, the patron saint of farmers. “He and his wife are both saints because they were filled with gratitude and they made connections with God all of the time in everything that they did,” he said. “Let’s not lose that spirit. Let’s be thankful and in this Mass, which is the act of thanksgiving, let’s thank God for all of his blessings upon us, especially the gift of our farms, the gift of rural life families and the gift of rural life communities and rural life marriages.”
After Mass, Bishop Ricken blessed seeds and soil brought to the Mass by local farmers. A procession outside the church followed, where farm tractors and two trailers with calves and other farm animals were blessed with holy water by Bishop Ricken.
Another Rural Life Day Mass, celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau, was held March 20 at St. Wenceslaus Church in Neva. According to Deb Wegner-Hohensee, who coordinates Rural Life Day for the diocese, a total of about 430 people attended both gatherings.