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The Land and the Spirit

by The Most Reverend Peter W. Bartholome, D.D.


This sermon was delivered at the Pontifical High Mass in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Green Bay, Wisconsin, during the National Convention of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

Publisher & Date

National Catholic Rural Life Conference, October 13, 1946

"O all ye things that spring up in the earth, bless the Lord; praise and exalt Him above all forever." Dan. 3:76

A sermon delivered at the Pontifical High Mass in St. Francis Xavier Cathedral, Green Bay, Wisconsin, during the National Convention of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference.

October 13, 1946

The Catholic Rural Life Conference has completed twenty-three years of its existence as an organization. During that time a very worthy contribution has been made toward bringing men to a realization that the land is a problem intimately woven into the growth and healthy development of the family, the nation and the Church. Many facts about the problem have been presented during these years by the Conference, and these facts have aroused thinking men over the nation to the acceptance of the Rural Life Conference as one of the most constructive organizations interested in the solution of the problem of the land. Bishops, priests and people have been inspired by this Conference to study the problems and to present plans for its solution. Constructive programs were started and set into action. Out of this study and effort is beginning to emerge a true Catholic philosophy of the land, which it is hoped the next quarter of a century will bring to full fruition.


This Conference is concerned with the land, God's greatest material gift to men, and its relation to Christianity. Out of the land the body of man was fashioned, and on it man depends for his continued existence in this world. By the land man lives and breathes; for its products he expends his life's energy. On the land depends the industry and commerce of the world. The land is basic to all the material activities of man. Through the land man is best able to work up to the fullest development of his nature as created by God. On the land man is closest to God's creation and should therefore with greater facility work out his soul's salvation. And at the end of his life the body of man again returns and becomes identified with the land. Truly there seems to be no relationship of man with material things so intimate, as that of man with the earth; thus indeed it is highly fitting that the Catholic Church, through an organization such as the Rural Life Conference, should become deeply interested in the land, in so much as it affects the material and spiritual interests of man, and to show man how the use of the land is intimately bound up with the great mission of the Church, viz., the glory of God and the salvation of souls.


History shows that the development of the family, the interests of the Christian religion and the general culture and economy of a nation depend basically on the attitudes that society has toward the land. Since the days of the fall of Adam and Eve, when the land suffered with Adam in his fall, the land has been an intricate and disturbing factor in the relationships of the human race. Men have vied with each other for its possession. Greed for land has disturbed the peace of the world throughout history. The varied productivity of the land has unbalanced the economy of nations. The lust for wealth has brought about an inequitable distribution of the land and a depletion of the fertility of the soil. Slavery as an institution in history was intimately bound up with the greed of men for the land. In some sections of our nation and in the countries south of the Rio Grande, the ownership of the land is the basic disturbance in the social, religious, economic and governmental fabric of these nations. In the Balkan countries, in Spain and to a lesser extent in some of the other nations of Europe this same basic problem is a disturbing element for good order and peace.


Thus it is very important that Christian principles of justice and charity, as expounded in the Rural Life Conference, be the guiding force in the attempts of men toward a solution of the problem of the land. It is not, however, sufficient merely to analyze the problem itself but more important to consider the factors and forces that are contributory and basic to the solution.

The problem of the land, like most problems of human society, has been studied from materialistic viewpoints and backgrounds during these three or four centuries. The economists and sociologists look at the land from the standpoint of material values. The chemist analyzes its contents and aims at greater and better production. The law makers pass legislation regulating ownership and the disposal of the products of the land. The industrialist in the main ignores the problem and is interested solely in greater production, as grist for the industrial mill.

The solutions offered by these groups can and do offer partial remedies to the problem of the land, but they ignore entirely that the basic solution for any problem in which human beings are concerned must be moral and religious. Political, economic and scientific solutions can only lead the way up to a point where they meet the human element, the will of man, his emotional and moral forces. And it is here specifically that the moral force of right reason guided by divine revelation, in other words, ethics and religion, must take over to direct the right use of the material principles laid down by science and economics.

Of what good to the human race will it be to know the secrets of the soil, to have control of the productive powers of the land, if man has no control of himself, if he used his knowledge to increase unjustly his worldly wealth and power, thereby defeating the very purpose which he aimed at, bringing untold misery on the generations that follow this achievement of knowledge. A very graphic demonstration of the futility of the efforts of government, science and economics without morality and religion, is with us at the present time. This is the greatest land productive year in the history of the nation. God has blessed us during the past decade of years. At the same time we are undergoing the hardships of food shortages all over the world as well as in this land of plenty. The plans and programs of legislation that are being offered, presuppose men of good will with a sense of Christian justice, men endowed with a deep sense of obligation to the Creator of the land, men whose outlook on life is Christian, who "seek first the kingdom of God and His justice," who, by refusing to rob the fertility of the soil for temporal gain, refuse to rob their children in generations to come, men who have a respect for the basic principles of Christian living as applied to the land and its products.

The greatest and most destructive error of our time is the belief, which springs from ignorance and bad will, that science, mechanics, and legislation are the saving factors in the solution of all problems. It is this blind faith in science, in the belief that knowledge alone saves, that has brought us to the confusing and almost ridiculous situation of being the greatest producing nation in the world with the greatest shortages in the history of the nation. It is not science, but religion with its spiritual, ethical and philosophical qualities, capable of putting the mechanics of science to its proper use for human society in accordance with equity, justice and charity, that have advanced man to the status that he has reached at this time.


It is precisely at this point in the solution of the problem of the land, that the Catholic Rural Life Conference can make its greatest contribution. Its contribution must be primarily spiritual and ethical. The Rural Life Conference must be interested in the heart and soul of the farmer more than in the soil and the economic problems of the land. True, it must be interested in material planning and must foster movements such as cooperatives, distributism and soil conservation, but let these movements be permeated with the teachings of Christ and let them come into existence rather as a result of His teachings or at least correlated with them. This means that our Catholic farmers must be educated in the Christian way of life. It implies a complete change in the thinking and motivation of the farmer away from the worldly and materialistic conceptions to the higher and more spiritual concept of why men till the soil. Teach the farmer the Christian philosophy of the land, viz., that he is a steward and not the owner of the land. Impress him with the noble conception of the sacredness of the soil and his responsibility to God for its right use. Show him how advantageously he can work out his own salvation and that of his family on the land. Hold before him how the beauties of God are reflected in the products of the soil. Convince him that Christian virtue can be successfully attained through the labor, hardship and self sacrifice that the cultivation of the land requires of him. Point out to the Catholic farmer that God's plan for the social existence of man in this world can best be worked out on the land. Show him that the dignity, independence and freedom of a man can reach its fullest stature on the land and not in the industrial world. Remind him that the Lord God sent Adam out of Paradise to till the earth from which he was taken and "in the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth out of which thou wast taken." Indeed we must show our Catholic farmers their complete dependence on God for the material products of the land and how, that in turn, should develop a deep faith in Him, a firm hope, and an ardent love for His bounty and munificence. Our pulpits in the rural areas must interpret the life of the farmer in terms of the life of Christ. Only then will the Gospel of Christ be a living, practical message that the farmer will understand and adopt, for the farmer, like all men, is groping and longing for the higher ideals of life.


Moreover, it must be borne in mind by this Conference that lasting qualities and more or less permanency in any movement for human betterment can only be achieved when we start our movement with the children and the youth. This fact demands that the schools in our villages and rural areas must first of all have Catholic rural teachers in the true sense of the term Catholic and rural. This implies a change in the curriculum of studies and the Christian rural viewpoint in our text books. Imbue the souls of children with the dignity of work, the beauty of self-discipline. Teach them that land is not a commodity to be bought and sold, and that in value cannot be measured in terms of money. The dignity of the farmer must be reestablished in the souls of the children. Love for the land must be nurtured in the hearts of our little ones. The future of the Church and our democracy in the large measure depends on what action is taken by the Church and this Conference in regard to the important matter of the Catholic rural school, which should determine the future attitude of the new generation toward the land. Centralization and urbanization of the school is the trend of secular education in this country. Educators are attempting to legislate the rural school out of existence on the plea of its inability to educate and that the cost is abnormally high. The Catholic rural school must be maintained and developed.


Finally, let it be understood that the Holy Father has made it very dear that "the longed for social reconstruction, that mankind hopes for, must be preceded by a profound renewal of the Christian spirit–otherwise all our endeavors will be futile, and our social edifice will be built, not upon a rock, but upon the shifting sand." This realization must gradually come to a focus in the Rural Life Conference. Fortunately during the latter years of its existence efforts are being made on all sides to renew the spirit of the farmer. Retreats, days of recollection are being given to farm people. Holy Mass and the liturgy of the Church is being woven into the life of the farmer. Due to the influence of the Rural Life Conference, the necessity of Christian thinking and action in the social reconstruction of rural society is being more and more appreciated in circles outside of the church. Materialistic planning has failed, men are groping about for something firmer, more basic and simpler in their social remedies. The bottom has fallen out of the economic, social and rationalistic panaceas offered by unbelieving thinkers and planners. They are looking for a way out. Let us show them Christ walking through the fields of Palestine, preaching His message of love and fellowship in God, admiring the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, only to show that God is the Great Provider for mankind. Show Christ in contemplation, fasting and praying in the recesses of the hills and in the arid desert land, reminding farmers when earthly gain and wealth is held out to them, that "not by bread alone does man live." Hold up the Eucharistic Christ before them in the form of bread and wine, the fruits of the soil, which will remind them that He alone is the bread of life and that "he that eats this bread shall live forever."

Bring the teachings of Christ to them in the simple parables of the farm– the prodigal son, the unjust steward, the barren fig tree, the good shepherd–so that in nature he will see Christ and understand His message to men.

The world needs Christ. The Catholic Rural Life Conference must bring Christ "the Way, the Truth and the Life" to men. Then indeed will "all things that spring up in the earth," in fullest reality, "bless the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever."

"The Object of this Conference shall be to Strengthen and Develop Catholicity in the Rural Districts, and to Promote the General Welfare of the Rural Population."


1) To Care for the Underprivileged Catholics Living on the Land

2) To Keep on the Land Catholics Who Are Now on the Land

3) To Settle More Catholics on the Land

4) To Convert the Non-Catholics on the Land

© National Catholic Rural Life Conference

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