WAUPACA — After the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of Rural Life Days last year, the Diocese of Green Bay decided to proceed this year with an abbreviated celebration. Rather than hold two separate events at different rural parishes, as has been tradition, one Rural Life Day Mass took place April 10 at St. Mary Magdalene Church.
Due to the pandemic, people attending were asked to reserve a seat for the Mass, to wear face masks and to sit a safe distance from others. No luncheon or guest speaker followed the Mass, which was livestreamed on the parish’s Facebook page.
Because of a death in his family, Bishop David Ricken was unable to celebrate the Rural Life Day Mass. Instead, Fr. John Girotti, vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Green Bay, served as principal celebrant and homilist. He was joined at the altar by Fr. Xavier Arockiasamy Santiago, pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Parish, and Deacon Bob Precourt, pastoral leader at St. Mark Parish in Redgranite and Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Poy Sippi.
“I have served in parishes large and small, but the happiest days of my priesthood were spent in rural areas, small country parishes, so I am honored to be with you today,” Fr. Girotti told guests, including farm families, who brought seeds to be blessed before spring planting.
In his homily, Fr. Girotti reflected on a family photograph taken in the early 1970s, as well as the Parable of the Sower and the challenge of recognizing the master gardener who plants the seeds of life.
Fr. Girotti said he found the photograph in an album that he opened on the 10th anniversary of his mother’s death.
“It’s a picture that was taken about 50 years ago, on a beautiful summer afternoon,” he said. “My mother and father are there, and my aunts and my uncles are there and my grandparents are there, sitting on a patio. … My mom is wearing some type of sun dress, very thin, my dad is there as a young professor wearing a tweed jacket with patches on the elbows and a pipe.”
Fr. Girotti said he studied the photo and thought about the people in it. Then he reflected on their lives.
“A thought occurred to me,” he said. “I know what happened to each of these people. I know what 50 years would bring for them. At that time, they had no idea. … As I looked at the picture, I wanted to call out and say, ‘Stop drinking, it’s going to ruin one of your marriages.’ ‘Have faith, things are going to work out for you.’ …. To another person, I wanted to say, ‘Thank you for the service to our country and the wounds you will receive from it. You kept us free.’”
Knowing their futures would not change outcomes, he said.
“Of course, you can’t go back. It was a picture in time,” he said. “And yet, as we think about these things in life, we wish we could call out to our ancestors and say, ‘Don’t go down that path. Choose this and not that.’” But, in reality, “there’s no rewind, there is no fast-forward or pause, there is no instant replay,” he added. “This is life.”
Fr. Girotti then turned to the Parable of the Sower told by Jesus in the Gospels.
“Of course, the message of Jesus in that parable is to remind us that he is the sower and we are the seed and that he is working on us,” he said. “He is working on our lives this very moment. Not just 50 years ago, not just 50 years from now, but today, and it’s a blessing.”
This parable is one farmers can relate to, said Fr. Girotti.
“I think that one of the blessings for you, who live close to the land and who embrace rural life, is that you see the cycle of life,” he said. “My intention is not to romanticize it, because I’m sure it has its challenges and it’s hard work. But you see the cycle of life, planting the seed, nourishing the seed, watering the seed, growing the seed and it works.
“Sometimes it needs a little extra effort,” he continued. “You have to watch out for disease and you have to make sure there is enough moisture and you have to make sure it’s the right time for the harvest, so you can feed the animals, so that it can (produce) the milk, so that it can produce wages for yourselves and your family and to feed our nation, so that we can survive.”
Fr. Girotti told the assembly that the farming way of life is hard, “yet you who work and live close to the land, you see this. You see and you experience the planting of seeds. And you have to learn patience, because it takes a long time for seeds to grow.”
God, too, has planted seeds in the lives of his children, added Fr. Girotti.
“God’s planted seeds in my mother’s life, in my father’s life, my aunts and uncles and my grandparents. Many years ago, long before that picture was taken 50 years ago,” he said. “And those seeds went to different places and experienced something called ‘life,’ with all of its ups and downs and joys and sorrows. The very thing that you and I are experiencing this very day.”
Parents, educators and parish ministers have all had the experience of seed planting, he said.
“We plant and nothing happens, or it grows for a while and it seemingly stops growing. …. Or we had a plan for the seed and the plan went a completely different way than you and I were expecting it to go,” he said. “And all of these things bring us to our knees.
“I know that many of you, perhaps, have had the experience of thinking to yourselves, ‘What did I do wrong? My kids, my friends, my loved ones. Maybe I should have said something else. Maybe I should have worked harder. Maybe I should have brought them to church more, prayed for them more,’” he added. “I have experienced this, too, as a priest. People that I minister to, I planted seeds and somehow it didn’t work out the way I was hoping it would. Sometimes I blame myself. I think this is a human experience.”
Yet, he said, God is at work.
“The Lord knows what he’s about to do. Are we willing to wait for it? Are we willing to be patient with him? God is slow, but he’s never late,” he said. “Can we be patient with him as he nourishes seeds in our soul, the seed of faith in our loved ones’ souls, through this thing called ‘life’ which can be dirty, messy? We don’t see that in pictures because when somebody says, ‘I want to take your picture,’ we smile, whether we feel like it or not. What else are we to do? And yet, God still is at work.”
Fr. Girotti concluded his homily with a challenge for all: Recognize who plants these seeds.
“It is God who is the gardener, … who tends the garden in our souls. God is at work. Don’t give up — on your loved ones, on your family, on your friends, on God.”
Returning to the family photo from 50 years ago, he said he realized God was at work then, just as he is now.
“This is why we say the ancient and beautiful Easter hymn of the early church: ‘This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad,’” added Fr. Girotti. “These are the good old days today. The sower is at work, he has risen from the dead. We are his and we are safe.”
Following Communion, Fr. Girotti led the assembly in a Litany to St. Isidore, patron saint of farmers, followed by a blessing of seeds brought by parishioners. The traditional blessing of farm animals and tractors, which is held outdoors, did not take place this year.
View more photos on our Flickr album.