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Prayers for Farmers

by John Hennig, M.A.

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    St. Isidore and various blessings in the Roman Ritual and other places in our liturgy illustrate the high regard the Church has for the natural life.
  • Larger Work:
    Orate Fratres
  • Pages: 494-502
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Liturgical Press, October 8, 1944

One of the most conspicuous changes which war-time conditions have brought about in all countries the new and greater realization of the important, and indeed the basic, part played by farming within the framework of national economy: and there are not many points in which the everlasting truth of the Church's teaching with regard to natural life becomes more obvious, even to outsiders, than the fact that at no period of history has the Church lost contact with the land and those who work it. It is a well-known fact that even in modern times the vast majority of Catholic priests are from country-families, and there are famous examples of sons of shepherds and farm laborers attaining to the highest ranks in the hierarchy. Of all spheres of Church life, however, the liturgy is by far the most expressive of the unceasing interest taken by the Church in country life and farming. From the parables of our Lord we see that the farmer's life is a great symbol of Christian life in general, and that, in fact, the country-people stand in a particularly close relationship with almighty God.

Among the "Occasional Prayers" for various spiritual and natural needs, as found in the appendix of the Roman missal, prayers concerned with agricultural needs hold a’ prominent position. In all countries the prayers "For Fine Weather" or “For Rain” are frequently prescribed as orationes imperatae by the local ecclesiastical authorities. Also the prayers “Against Storms" and “Against Cattle-Plague" are of special significance for farmers. The general idea underlying these prayers is most clearly expressed in the collect for rain, which asks that, “receiving a sufficient supply of temporal necessities, we seek with more confidence after things eternal." The relationship between man and nature is summed up in the words of the collect against cattle-plague: “By means of dumb animals Thou hast given relief to the labors of men." The general significance of the mental attitude of farmers is demonstrated in the secret prayer for fine weather: "May Thy mercy ever go before us and follow us.” Like the farmers we must surrender all our anxieties and fears to the Lord of heaven and earth, without whom there is neither sowing nor harvesting.

When celebrating a saint's feast, the Church indicates, both in the liturgical texts and by the color of the liturgical vestments, to which special group of saints this particular one belongs. Martyrs who sealed their faith with their blood are celebrated in red vestments, virgins who triumphed in their chastity, in White. Besides the holy martyrs and virgins, we have confessors, doctors, popes, bishops, abbots and widows amongst the saints. The martyrology adds some more groups, such as soldiers and children. Besides the group to which the saint belongs, the missal sometimes indicates the secular rank or dignity which the saint held in his life, especially when he was an emperor or king. On May 15, many dioceses celebrate the feast of St. Isidore, who in the headline of the Mass of the day is called “confessor and husbandman" or farm-laborer. In the missal, no other saint is called “husbandman" or "farmer." Although St. Isidore’s feast is prescribed only for some countries, notably Spain, by officially calling this saint "the farm-laborer" the Church expresses her Wish to promote his cult as a universal patron of farmers. In fact, the attribute “the farm-laborer" is too exceptional to have been inserted simply for the reason of distinguishing this saint from another St. Isidore, the famous bishop of Seville, whose feast is universally celebrated on April 4. St. Isidore the Laborer is the principal patron of the city of Madrid, where his feast is observed with great solemnity. Other Spanish dioceses and the martyrology appoint the feast to May 10.

St. Isidore was born about 1130. He became a laborer in the employment of a gentleman of Madrid, and was engaged on a farm outside the town. With his wife, who to this day is popularly venerated as St. Mary of the Head (or: the Courage), he led a life of hard work, prayer and charity. When the first streaks of light appeared in the east, he rose and went into Madrid to attend Mass in one of the churches. His fellow laborers accused him to his master of coming late to Work. When charged with this reproach, St. Isidore replied: ‘,‘I do my utmost to make up for the few minutes snatched for prayer, and if you compare my work with the work of the other plowers you will find that I have not defrauded you." The gentleman was not satisfied, and one morning he watched the saint at his work. Then he saw that beside St. Isidore there was a second plow drawn by white and urged on by an angel, rapidly cutting clean furrows. People said of the saint that in life his hand was ever on the plow, his heart ever blessed with the thought of God. He possessed the gift of miracles in life. After his death, on May 15, 1170, his body was found to be incorrupt, a fresh evidence of his sanctity. He was buried in the cemetery of St. Andrew's, a church he had been wont to frequent, but was afterwards taken up and brought into the church, and then, we are told, all the bells of the church rang though untouched by human hands. The miracle attributed to St. Isidore’s intercession gave an impetus to his cult. On March 12, 1622, under Pope Gregory XIV, he was canonized,1 with Sts. Ignatius, Francis Xavier, Teresa of Avila and Philip Neri.

The liturgy of St. Isidore’s feast is unique, abounding as it does with allusions to agriculture. The lesson, taken from St. James’ Epistle, begins with the Words: “Be patient, brethren. Behold the husbandman watcheth for the precious fruit of the earth, patiently bearing till he receives the early or the late rain." This is the only instance in the whole missal where this passage is used. Whilst the martyrs are praised for their constancy, the doctors for their wisdom, the virgins for their chastity, the holy kings for their justice and the soldiers for their fortitude, in the liturgy of St. Isidore's feast the farmers are praised for their patience. This is the fundamental virtue of the farmer's calling, and it is a virtue of special religious significance. The end of the lesson compares the farmer with Elias “who prayed that it might not rain and prayed again that the heaven might give rain.” Whilst the farmer has to wait patiently for rain, the faithful must wait for grace, which frequently is called a “dew.” It is significant that the end of this lesson is also used in the Mass of Rogation Day when, at the beginning of summer, the Church prays for fine weather. Actually, by the words, “for the continuous prayer of the just man availeth much,” we are summoned to pray for fine weather and for grace. The gospel of the day is identical with the gospel of the common Mass for a martyr in paschaltide, but in the liturgy of St. Isidore’s feast the initial words are of special import: “I am the true vine and My Father is the husbandman" (John 15:1). A farmer understands the special meaning of this parable of our Lord: “Every branch that beareth not fruit will be taken away, shall wither, and they shall gather him up and cast him into the fire.” Moreover, we learn from this gospel that not only “all paternity” (Eph. 3:15) but also all husbandmanship “is named from God." In his very trade, the farmer imitates God. The final words of the gospel: “You shall ask whatever you will and it shall be done unto you," again summon us to pray for God’s help in our natural needs.

The gospel moreover teaches us that "whoever remains in Christ bears fruit.” Accordingly, the introit and gradual say: “The just shall flourish like the palm-tree, he shall grow up like a cedar, bloom as a lily and flourish forever" (Ps. 31 and Osee 14), verses frequently found in Masses of confessors and martyrs, in particular in the Mass of St. John the Baptist, but of special significance in the Mass of our farmer-saint. In the tract, the just is promised that “his seed shall be mighty" (Ps. 111), an expression to be linked with the promise made by our Lord in the gospel, and repeated in the communion-verse: “He shall receive an hundredfold" (Matt. 19:29), alluding as it does to the parable of the seed.

The collect of the Mass shows the way to this justice in God: “Make us, O Lord, through the intercession of blessed Isidore the husbandman, Thy confessor, not think proudly but, through his merit and example, serve Thee always in acceptable humility." The word “humility” comes from the Latin word for “soil” (humus) and literally means "lowness." Thus ,the very toil of the farmer in the field is regarded as a symbol of, that spiritual humility which led St. Isidore to heaven. The patience and humility of country life is contrasted to the lofty wisdom with which a man “hardly will enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:23).

The “labors” of St. Isidore are also alluded to in the proper antiphons of the office of the day:

The Lord our God has filled the labors of his hands with goods for he has fed those that were hungry,

and:

O soldier hermit, who through the hard labors of Christian warfare (an expression taken from the ancient prayer of blessing of the ashes, the initial prayer of Lent) hast deserved the peace of angelic happiness…

Thus the liturgy of St. Isidore’s feast shows to us not only the saint as a husbandman, but more generally the religious significance of the farmer's calling. Here, the supernatural outlook of this calling is re-opened, whilst, at the same time, the farmer's patience, paralleled with the patience of nature when waiting for rain or ?ne weather, becomes a symbol of the spiritual virtue of patience in the sight of almighty God. In St. Isidore, the universal patron of farmers, the farmer’s vocation receives its everlasting dignity and becomes one of the most characteristic states in Christian social life.

Whilst considering the position occupied by farmers in the missal, we must, however, not overlook the still greater prominence given to the land in the ritual. There is no calling which is distinguished by so many blessings as is the farmer’s. The first and most solemn blessing to be concerned with farmers is the “Blessing for the People and the Land,” to be administered only by special papal indult. In its very title this blessing mentions the close connection existing between men and soil. This blessing is administered on a Sunday after three days of fasting initiated by the votive Mass “For Forgiveness of Sins," the litany and the Confiteor. On Sunday, after the votive Mass “In Any Necessity,” the litany, the Our Father and Psalm 84 are recited with the following versicles:

Thou crownest the ear with Thy blessings, and Thy ?elds over?ow with plenty (Ps. 64:12). The eyes of all hope in Thee, O Lord, and Thou givest them meat in due season (Ps. 114:15).

After two general prayers. one of them the collect of the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, the following prayer leads to the particular concern of the blessing:

We beseech Thee, O Lord, vouchsafe to shed Thy blessing upon these fruits of the land, which Thou nourishest by fine weather and by rain, and grant to this Thy people that they may always give thanks to Thee for Thy gifts, in order that by the fertility of the land Thou mayest lavishly fill the hungry souls with good things, so that also the needy and the poor may praise the name of Thy glory.

Then follows the blessing of the land as such, and after the Asperges and a few more versicles, the blessing of the people. With the collect of the votive Mass “For Thanksgiving" the ceremony ends. The before-mentioned prayer is also used in the blessing “Of the Pastures and Fields," a blessing originally composed for Switzerland and inserted in the ritual only fifty years ago. Whilst in the blessing “Of the People and the Land" the petition of the litany of all saints “That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to give and preserve the fruits of the earth" is repeated three times, in this blessing the special petition "That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to bless, preserve and protect from all attacks by evil spirit" is inserted. Moreover, besides the usual petition “From lightning and tempest, deliver us," here the proper petition “That Thou wouldst vouchsafe to expel all lightning, hail, Wild tempests and harmful inundations from this place" is added. In the Middle Ages, the litany of the saints formed an essential part in the blessing against storms, and as such it is still found in the liturgy of the Rogation Days.

In the ritual, the “Blessing of the Pastures" is preceded by the “Blessing of the Seeds" which begs that God “may cherish the seeds with the favorable breeze of a gentle wind, make them fertile by heavenly dew and direct them safely to full maturity for the use of souls and bodies." The expression "heavenly dew," frequently used in the liturgy in the symbolical sense to signify grace, points to the fundamental idea of blessing of natural objects: supernature is based on the proper use of nature, there is no gap in between. Therefore, natural products such as victuals should serve not only for the nourishment of the body but also for the sustenance of the soul. In fact, in our blessing, the spiritual purpose of the grain seeds is mentioned first.

Another blessing of the seeds and the crops is given on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. Here we find the prayer of the “Blessing of the Seeds" in an enlarged form in which the institution of this blessing is traced back to the Old Covenant: "Thou shalt carry the first fruit to the house of the Lord” (Ex. 23:19). Moreover, this blessing contains a second prayer where God is called “Sower of the heavenly word," an allusion to the parable of the sower (Matt. 4) and, even more significantly, “Tiller working with spiritual rakes in the fields of our hearts.” This prayer also begs that the grain may safely reach the barns. Thus the blessing is clearly a harvest blessing. As a matter of fact, there exists in the ritual also a “Blessing of the Barn or the Harvested Grain" which is not appointed to a special feast day.

To the blessing of the seed on the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin there corresponds the blessing of the (harvested) herbs on the Assumption. This solemn blessing recalls the fact that the Assumption, the most ancient feast of our Lady, was originally a harvest feast, more definitely, a feast of the vintage, just as other ancient feasts of our Lady supplanted pagan feasts of the crops (in January) and of the grain harvest (in May). Another blessing of agricultural products is the “Blessing of the Vine,” which in the Middle Ages was administered on the feast of the Transfiguration. In this blessing, we find again the petition for "heavenly dew” and likewise for "abundance of rain, fine weather and protection from storms." All the above-mentioned blessings are in fact concerned with the weather. Prayers for rain, fair weather and against storms to be inserted in Mass are still found in the appendix of the missal. The custom of reading the beginning of the Gospel of St. John at the end of Mass originates from the ancient "Blessing against Storms," the beginning of the four Gospels, especially that of St. John, being considered as most effective blessings against storms. For this reason, too, the beginnings of the Gospels are read at the four stations in the procession held on the feast of Corpus Christi. In Germany, since the Middle Ages, between the feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross (May 3) and that of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (September 14), after Mass, a special solemn blessing against storms is administered. Another interesting blessing in this line is that of the crosses to be erected in the fields and vineyards on the feast of the Finding of the Cross or the following Sunday:

Bless these crosses, in order that hailstorms, tempests, storms and all attacks of the enemy may be kept away from the fields and vineyards until the fruits have come to maturity and have been collected in honor of Thy name by those who trust in the power of the holy Cross of Thy Son Jesus Christ.

Amongst the blessings concerned with agricultural products, we also find a “Blessing against Inundations,” inserted in the ritual in 1886. This blessing has no proper prayer, but after a few versicles, the collect "For Those in Temptation and Tribulation" is said.

The second half of the section of blessings dealing with agricultural objects is concerned with victuals and with animals. Whilst blessings for victuals have been given since the most ancient times, mainly in connection with the offerings made by the faithful for the meals of charity and for the sustenance of the clergy and the poor, blessings for animals are not found before the ninth century. One of the most ancient blessings of victuals is the “Blessing of Fruits and Grapes,” which is identical with the above-mentioned prayer of the “Blessing of the People and the Land.” The most ancient blessings of victuals were administered at Easter Sunday exclusively, when the faithful after the fasting of Lent brought the first fruit of the season to the house of God.

These paschal blessings still form a separate group in the ritual. Here we find the venerable blessings of the lamb-meat, of eggs, bread and of new fruits. All these ‘blessings display the characteristics of the ancient Roman liturgy, consisting as they do of short prayers in language of impressive austerity and dignity. In later years, from these blessings were derived the blessing of beer (“produced from the fat of grain"), the blessing of cheese or butter, and that of lard (“produced from the fat of animals"), and finally the “Blessing of Every Victual." The "Blessing of Poultry~Meat” alludes again to the Old Covenant, mentioning the Mosaic laws on clean and unclean animals. This latter blessing leads to the blessings for animals, such as bees, silkworms, cattle, draught-cattle, horses, and of animals in disease. The missal likewise contains prayers “In Time of Cattle-Plague" to be inserted in Mass. The last blessing found in the section dealing with agricultural objects is the beautiful blessing of the stable which leads us into the stable of Bethlehem, thus once again reminding us of the close relationship in which this whole sphere of life stands with the life of our Lord.

JOHN HENNIG

Notes:

  1. The Irish Franciscans have the privilege of celebrating St. Isidore’s feast because their college in Rome is attached to his church, which was transferred to them in the early seventeenth century at the request of the great Fr. Luke Wadding. who, incidentally, in his capacity as member of the papal commission for the edition of the new breviary, also compiled the present-day office for St. Isidore’s feast. A society recently formed by the bishop of Poznan for Polish farm-laborers abroad was placed under St. Isidore’s patronage.

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