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A Catholic vision for farm and town

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"Environmental history intersects with American religious history in the National Catholic Rural Life Conference, with its distinctly Catholic-American environmental vision," University of Notre Dame scholars Christopher Hamlin and John McGreevy wrote last year, adding that the conference has been completely missing from the environmental history and overlooked in the religious history.

Consistently over its history, the conference has expressed and worked on behalf of a vision of religious, cultural, social, ethical and environmental values, all seen as part of one web of life.

From inventing new kinds of Catholic rural communities during the Depression to countering the predations of the agri-industrial complex in recent years, the conference has served rural Catholics.

Headquarters is a barn-red, two-story ranch house on the outskirts of Des Moines about a mile from where Interstates 35 and 80 intersect to form a crossroads of the nation.

Its location in the upper Midwest is no accident, as it was born into and much influenced by the German-Catholic heritage of that area, which included a strong agrarian vision. Input from figures like liturgical reformer Benedictine Father Virgil Michel shaped the conference in its early years.

Easily one of the most remarkable conference figures was Msgr. Luigi Ligutti, director during the 1950s, who was nicknamed "the pope's county agent."

Italian-born Ligutti migrated to America in 1912 and was ordained in 1917, at the time the youngest priest in the country. Sent to Des Moines to teach high-school Latin, a shortage of pastors led to his appointment to a country parish in nearby Granger. His pastorate exposed him to the problems of rural life. He became involved in solving the economic problems of the Depression, with a homestead project for unemployed miners. His success there allowed him to rise to the top of the Catholic rural life movement.

Known for his colorful speeches, he once advised a farm audience in North Dakota: "Ora et labora [pray and work] - and use a lot of fertilizer!" He influenced his friend, Pope John XXIII, a fellow northern Italian of peasant background, in the writing of his encyclical Mater et Magistra (Mother and Teacher), a long section of which dealt with rural economic development.

The conference became international under Ligutti, working on problems of world hunger and poverty.

Beginning with the farm crisis in the 1980s through the disastrous 1996 "Freedom to Farm Bill" - soon nicknamed the "freedom to fail" bill - to the present, the conference has continued the environmental/agrarian vision of its early years.

Brother David Andrews brought a strong focus on sustainability as a goal for both farm and community, and intensified activity on both the local and global fronts.

In fact, the Green adage - think globally, act locally - perfectly describes a staff that acts globally, nationally and locally all at once. Its wide range was demonstrated during a visit by National Catholic Reporter over two weeks in May.

- Brother Andrews was packing for a trip to North Carolina to tour the headquarters of Smithfield Farms, one of the nation's largest pork producers, and then on to Germany and Belgium for discussions on the world food system.

- Conference agronomist Robert Gronski had just returned from Kenya, where he joined in the first meeting of the Africa Forum of the Agribusiness Accountability Initiative, a joint effort of the conference and the Washington-based Center of Concern.

- Rural sociologist Carol Richardson Smith, director of community resources for the Ligutti Rural Community Support Program, was off to "map" the food system of another Iowa county, a process that is part of the program's "Directions" effort, designed to link local markets with nearby small family farmers in the area who can supply them.

- CeCe Arnold, mental health director of the Ligutti Program, was working with a group combating human trafficking along the Interstate 35 corridor that stretches from Mexico to the Canadian border.

- Science and environmental specialist Tim Kautza coordinates Iowa Interfaith Power and Light, a coalition of 90 congregations engaged in improving energy efficiency in church buildings.

Brother Andrews inaugurated the community support programs in the '90s, when he realized rural health care was deficient and economic development was largely limited to "prisons, pork and poker" - rural detention facilities, giant hog farms and casinos.

Many excellent pastoral letters and statements from American bishops on farm and rural issues have doubtlessly been influenced by the conference's vision.

"The Catholic rural life movement more than any other group in the American church combined its faith with everyday American life," wrote Catholic historian Jeffrey Marlett.

No surprise really for followers of Jesus, who after all was a rural dweller himself, born in a barn.

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