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St. Isidore the Farmer and Rogation Days

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | May 14, 2014

Of all the saints on the calendar, St. Isidore the Farmer ranks as one of my favorite saints. (I can rarely narrow down to only one favorite, but I will say he is included in my "Top 10".) I'd like to have a garden statue dedicated to St. Isidore. I've only seen St. Francis and St Fiacre, so it might be a novel idea. I have often thought that he would fit wonderfully nearby my vegetable garden. I'm merely a girl that has lived in cities and suburbs all my life, so I know it may sound strange that I identify with a farmer. But perhaps we all should?

St. Isidore Tidbits

On May 15 the United States Liturgical Calendar celebrates the Optional Memorial for St. Isidore the Farmer. Originally the feast was celebrated in the United States on March 22 but by the 1969 General Calendar reform the feast was officially moved to May 15. Of course it doesn't always fall this way, but this followed Good Shepherd Sunday, and many of the readings have continued the focus on the Good Shepherd and agriculture, which makes this feast day fit quite nicely with the Sunday liturgy.

Not much is known about St. Isidore and very few biographies are available in English. He is most known for his Mass attendance before going to his work in the fields but his work never suffered because he was assisted by his angel. He is also known for his holiness, generosity and other miracles.

Several other miracles revealed his deep faith in God and his concern for those who were much poorer than he and Maria. People came to know that Isidore was indeed a very pious man. He not only attended Mass but frequently served as an acolyte. It was not uncommon to find a train of beggards following Isidore home, hoping to receive something to eat. One day, a story says, after feeding many poor in their home, a beggar arrived late and asked for food. Maria knew that the pot was empty, but Isidore told her to give him what was left. When she opened the pot, she found it full of food. He also demonstrated love for all God's nonhuman creatures. One winter day, on his way to have a sack grain ground, he noticed some birds sitting on a barren branch, obviously unable to find anything to eat, Isidore spread half the grain onto the ground and the birds happily flocked to it, a good deed that earned Isidore ridicule from his coworker. When the two arrived at the mill, not only was Isidore's sack full of grain, but, when it was ground, his grain produced a double amount of flour.

These are stories about a saint--poor, devout, and close to the land and to nature. Daily Mass attendance and service at the altar, reception of Communion, and the praying of Sunday Vespers were routine for Isidore. His faithful work in the vineyard moved his master to place him in charge of more land. Isidore died May 15, 1130, and his body remained incorrupt for some time after death. He and his devoted wife Maria became the first husband and wife pair to be canonized by the church, albeit on different dates. He is the patron saint of Madrid. March 12, 1622, marked the day of Isidore's canonization along with a few other notable figures--Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier, Philip Neri, and Theresa [sic] of Avila. Maria de la Cabeza was canonized on August 11, 1697. As a simple, faithful, and loving couple, Isidore and Maria served as ideal intercessors for rural parishes and families, models to follow because of their love for the church's liturgy and Christ's poor--human and nonhuman alike (Cultivating Soil and Soul by Michael J. Woods, p. 106).

What touches me the most reading these short snippets of his life is how St. Isidore kept his priorities in order. He placed his faith first, putting liturgy as the priority in his prayer, with work second, but all dedicated to God. In doing so, his work never suffered. It is a reminder to me on the dignity of work, just like the focus of the recent feast of St. Joseph the Worker. St. Isidore reiterates the sanctity of work. When God created man, he created us to work. Man's work is intended to be an imitation of God our creator. Work is not a punishment for sin but part and parcel of the gift of life. St. Isidore reminds me to keep in the presence of God and unite all my work to Him. I can ask St. Isidore to help order my priorities, to help me put God first and sanctify my work.

Sacred Calling of the Farmer

Isidore's title of farmer or husbandman is very unique in the list of saints included in the missal. John Hennig in an article from 1947 in Orate Fratres gave great reflections of the liturgy of St. Isidore from the 1962 Missal. Although the current missal does not have these same readings and prayers, his points are quite beautiful and still applicable (emphasis mine):

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. [In the current lectionary this is only found for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, Year A.] 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.” ...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....

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 fine 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. ("Prayers for Farmers," Orate Fratres: A Liturgical Review, Vol. XVIII, October 8, 1944, No. 11, pp. 494-502)

Bishop Muench from an address in 1941 emphasized this dignity of the farmer's vocation:

The farmer's calling is a sacred calling. True, he does not wear a white collar as he goes out to his work; his face is begrimed by dirt as caressing winds press in on him while he follows the plow; his hard-horned hands give proof of the toilsome labor that is his on the farmstead. But, what a tremendous fallacy has laid hold of the minds of men that they have come to think that fine clothes, powdered faces, and dainty hands measure the true worth of man's calling. The sacredness of the farmer's calling rests on something more substantial than such external things.

His is a sacred calling because he is collaborator with God in continuing the work of His creation. In partnership with God he becomes to men a provider of the food, fiber, and shelter they need. Let the farmer, then, no longer depreciate himself in his own eyes. His calling is among the noblest in all the world. The Lord considered it so, and the farmer must think of it in the same terms. With God he lives and works in the vast realms of His bountiful and beautiful nature....He is a freeman as he strides through his fields following a plow, or sowing his seed, or harvesting his crop. He breathes God's free air.... He may lack some of the material things of city life. What does it matter? "There can be culture without comfort, beauty without luxury, machines without enslaving factories, science without worship of matter. Gigantic factories, office buildings rising to the sky, inhuman cities, industrial morals, faith in mass production, are not indispensable to civilization."5

It is has been repeated through Church history and Her liturgy that the life connected to agriculture "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." (Op. Cit.) A farmer's life is a life connected with the seasons and the weather and God's creation. He lives in constant humility, remembering his dependency upon God for all his work.

Universal Connection

Several popes have spoken on the sacredness of rural life, including St. John XXIII in the encyclical Mater et Magistra. Of course, we are not all called to live the rural life and be a farmer. But I think this feast is a reminder for us to keep our balance within His creation. We can't all grow acres of crops or raise orchards, but we can till the soil in smaller ways, whether it be a small vegetable garden, window boxes or a potted plant. We can't all raise sheep or chickens, but perhaps we can keep a small pet. In doing so, we are reminded of man's original task as stewards of creation. Working in the soil can remind us of how we were made from the dust and shall return to dust. Just aligning our lives more with nature and the seasons reminds us how we will always depend on him for all our daily needs. Air conditioning, grocery stores, artificial lights, plumbing, computers and electronics shut out the constant reminders. Bringing nature into our lives, even just the little flowers gathered for the offering at the family's prayer table changes our perspective. The seasons and weather are not all about our convenience. For example, when we have rain it is inconvenient and messy for our commute, but when my garden is thirsty, and my flowers need water, I really pray for and am thankful to God for the rain.

And the Bible and the Liturgy are full of references and natural imagery. I have already mentioned the Good Shepherd, but Jesus himself used countless parables with agrarian and husbandry themes. If you pray the Divine Office with the Universal Church, as The Little Oratory suggests, the Psalms are rich in references to the natural world, particularly the animals. All reminders of how we are united with this humble farmer saint.

And What about Proper Stewardship?

St. Isidore and his wife Maria de la Cabeza are the patron saints of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC), which was founded in the early 1920s. The NCRLC is one of the leaders of the Liturgical Movement in the United States, which intersected and united with several other groups, all universal in their view that liturgy needed to be the central focus. With liturgy in the forefront, the NCRLC focused on keeping families on the farm, developing and sustaining them spiritually, and to bring more Catholics to the land. During crises like the Great Depression or the Post-War era, they recognized the need to bring more to live on the land.They also promoted the idea of standing on both feet, living in the city but also building independence by living on the land. Their vision had similar ideas as Jeffersonian agrarianism and Distributism in England, understanding the rights of property, upholding the family farm and recognizing the problems of Industrial and monoculture farming which was spreading. The sidebar for the feast of St. Isidore includes several older publications from NCRLC in the Catholic Culture library. The prayers to St. Isidore were also composed by the NCRLC.

The NCRLC and many others in the Liturgical Movement had foresight to recognize the agrarian problems and needs of the family, and unfortunately these agricultural issues have grown far worse, with even more crises today. Our recent popes have spoken up much about stewardship of creation and the breakdown of families and family farms. It is to St. Isidore that we can ask for intercession in working for the good of the family and creation.

Rogation Days

The feast of St. Isidore and the Rogation days intersect quite nicely. As St. Isidore helps us remember to keep our balance in creation and recognize how we are so dependent upon God, we now formally turn our prayers to invoke his help for the growing season. The founder of NCRLC, Bishop Edwin O'Hara, was instrumental in reviving the practice of Rogation Days in the rural dioceses of the United States. Originally referred to as "the Litanies" or Cross Days, these were four days dedicated to asking God for blessing and protection for this year's crops through blessings, penance, and processions. The word rogation comes from the Latin word "rogare", meaning to ask. There was one major day, April 25, the feast of St. Mark, and three minor days before the Solemnity of the Ascension. The reform of the General Roman Calendar of 1969 made the celebration of these days optional, and this practice is mostly observed in rural areas. The General Norms of the Liturgical Calendar states:

45. On rogation and ember days the practice of the Church is to offer prayers to the Lord for the needs of all people, especially for the productivity of the earth and for human labor, and to give him public thanks.

46. In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan for their celebration.

Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year.

47. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions[g] that is best suited for the intentions of the petitioners.[R9]

[R9] Query: How should rogation days and ember days be celebrated?

        Reply: In regard to the time and the manner of celebration, the directives of the conference of bishops or of the individual bishops are to be followed. On the former rogation and ember days the Mass and office were those of the weekday or of the saints. But the bishop or the conference of bishops has the power to order special celebrations on those days; the celebrations may be varied, e.g., for rural or for urban settings, and may relate to different themes, like the harvest, peace, the unity of the Church, the spread of the faith, etc. In this case the votive Mass suited to the occasion is celebrated: Notitiae 5 (1969) 405.

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy explains the significance particularly of the Rogation processions:

245. Processions are cultic expressions of a universal character and have multiple social and religious significance. In them, the relationship between Liturgy and popular piety is especially important. Inspired by biblical examples (cf. Es 14,8-31; 2 Sam 6, 12-19; 1 Cor 15, 25-16,3), the Church has instituted a number of liturgical processions which have differing emphases...

  •  votive processions, such as ...the rogation processions, whose dates are to be established by the respective Conferences of Bishops, are both public implorations of God's blessing on the fields and on man's work, and penitential in character

...In their true form, processions are a manifestation of the faith of the people. They often have cultural connotations and are capable of re-awakening the religious sense of the people...

247. To preserve the character of processions as manifestations of faith, it is necessary for the faithful to be carefully instructed on their theological, liturgical and anthropological aspects.

From a theological perspective, it is important to emphasise that a procession is a sign of the Church's condition, the pilgrimage of the People of God, with Christ and after Christ, aware that in this world it has no lasting dwelling....

From a liturgical point of view, processions, even those of a popular tenor, should be oriented towards the Liturgy.....

From an anthropological perspective, the procession should make it evident that it is "a commonly undertaken journey"....

So with the Church's blessing and guidelines we can continue the tradition of Rogation Days. Since not all of us live in a rural area and therefore cannot join the larger community, there are some delightful suggestions in the Liturgical Year library on ways to implement some of the practices with the family. New seeds, a new garden bed, new plantings for the spring all need to be blessed and offered to God. Most of the prayers are taken from the older form of the Roman Ritual.

It is focusing on St. Isidore the Farmer, a simple agrarian saint that one can see how beautiful the connection of the Church's liturgy to God's creation and the natural and rural life. I may only be a suburban girl, but I do think this Farmer saint is patron for us all.

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Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 15, 2014 12:10 PM ET USA

    Thanks for an in depth and detailed article. Well researched. Especially helpful are the five links about rogation days near the end of the article.

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