commentary

Catholics have a moral responsibility to support local agriculture

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When the gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar for the holy sacrifice of the Mass, shouldn’t there be some stirring in our hearts that they really are the gifts of creation and the work of human hands? Msgr. Kevin W. Irwin, of The Catholic University of America, raises this question in his paper “Sacramentality: The Fundamental Language for Liturgy and Sacraments,” presented this spring at the eighth International Congress on Liturgy.

Within it, Msgr. Irwin considers if “in some industrialized societies, the rites during this part of the Eucharist have become too antiseptic, that is to say, paradoxically removed from their intrinsic rootedness in the earth and the ‘work of human hands.’”

Certainly, those regularly attending Mass without musical accompaniment are familiar with blessing God for the gifts of creation and recognizing the work of human beings. But many who attend Mass only on weekends frequently do not hear these opening Eucharistic prayers, as they are often spoken silently by the celebrant under the singing of the offertory hymn. This means that many Catholics, especially in urbanized areas, have little to connect their earthly lives with the offered bread and wine — just as many of us have little personal connection with the agricultural products we buy at our local supermarket.

This is a problem, because the link between ourselves, the Eucharist and agriculture should be fairly obvious. But how many parishes today have in it the family that grew the wheat for the bread or the vintner that harvested the grapes that have become the offertory bread and wine? Or, outside of the Mass, how many people know exactly where their daily bread actually comes from?

Msgr. Irwin’s sacramental point, then, appears in dialogue with other, worldlier, issues. And so it is not surprising that here we find the theologian’s concerns resonating with the observations of a scientist.

Dr. W. Michael Sullivan, director of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, holds his PhD in agronomy, or crop science, and is a faculty member of the University of Rhode Island. (As disclosure, the author is an employee of the RI Department of Environmental Management) A native of Massachusetts, Sullivan has lived in and around farming communities both on the East Coast and in the Midwest, and he is passionate about — and proud of — what farmers do.

“Food provides a very basic, intimate connection between who we are and the natural world,” says Sullivan. “The cycle of planting, nurturing, harvest — not to forget the faith it takes to plant a seed, watch it germinate, grow and thrive — is what life is. But in our urban world we’ve seen a disconnect from this cycle, and this hurts the sense of community that agriculture has always brought us.”

Sullivan is quick to note the struggle of today’s farming communities. In Rhode Island, for instance, the number of dairy farms has plummeted in the past 25 years from 102 to 18. And where most businesses seek a good 10 percent return on investments, farmers generally operate at just two or three percent. “Farming has to offer a viable living for these families,” Sullivan exhorts. Indeed, where would we be without local farmers?

“Absent local farmers” says Sullivan, “we don’t stand a chance” should any natural or terrorist event disrupt interstate transportation. In Rhode Island, the small, densely populated state has at any given time only about three days of food supply stored in retail warehouses. Because of modern land development patterns, in which many farmers succumbed to costs and the temptation of one-time profits of selling family farms, places like Rhode Island have lost a high percentage of their farmable land — that is, they’ve lost a good deal of their self-sufficiency.

Yet, there is good news. While Sullivan easily enumerates how agriculture builds community in larger Midwestern states, he is just as quick to point out how Rhode Islanders show an innate appreciation for local farms; whether in generosity with farm-preservation bonding, visiting local farmers’ markets, or buying “Rhody Fresh” milk, more and more Ocean State citizens seem to recognize and appreciate the health and environmental benefits of local farms.

Here again, we find the theologian and the scientist — humanity’s faith and reason — in dialogue. “The very preparation of, taking, blessing, breaking and giving,” writes Msgr. Irwin, “imply work and communal responsibility to share all of the earth’s resources with all on the earth lest we rape the world and leave it devastated for the next generation. We are meant to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to us. The sacramentality of the liturgy includes responsibility for and about the world.”

This responsibility has many facets, and supporting local agriculture is an essential one. And so at every Mass — as at every meal — let us remember always the vital link between we who benefit from, those who labor in, and that which bestows life onto the great gardens of creation that we call farms.

For more information on farming and local farming products in Rhode Island, visit http://www.dem.ri.gov/topics/agricult.htm.