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A Spiritual and Material Mission to Rural America

by The Most Reverend Edwin V. O'Hara, D.D.


Sermon delivered in St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rochester, N.Y., Sunday, October 27, 1935 explaining the concern of the Catholic Church with agrarianism or rural life.

Larger Work

Catholic Rural Life Objectives: Series of Discussions on Some Elements of Major Import. in the Philosophy of Agrarianism



Publisher & Date

National Catholic Rural Life Conference, 1935

It is thirteen years since St. Isidore's Plow turned its first furrow in the field of Catholic Rural Life. It must be admitted that there were many who felt that the soil was too thin and impoverished for profitable cultivation. The little group of country pastors who met at our call in 1923 under the benign patronage of the far-seeing Archbishop of St. Louis were not oblivious to the difficulties of their task when they established the Catholic Rural Life Conference as a voluntary association to cooperate in the program of the Rural Life Bureau of the National Catholic Welfare Conference. They were hardy plowmen who understood the scriptural injunction: "No man putting his hand to the plow and turning back is fit for the Kingdom of God." A sufficient testimonial to the fruitfulness of their labors is to be seen in the distinguished and representative character of the magnificent assembly gathered in St. Patrick's Cathedral today to invoke the Divine blessing on the proceedings and deliberations of their Thirteenth Annual Convention. I may not proceed without voicing the profound gratitude of the Board of Directors of the Conference to His Excellency, Most Reverend Archbishop Mooney, not only for his cordial invitation to hold the sessions of this convention in his episcopal city, but for the splendid preliminary work of organization accomplished by the committees of clergy and laity under his inspiration and direction, for the hospitable entertainment and the fruitful deliberation of the delegates assembled here in such numbers from far and near. Nor are we unmindful of the gracious presence of so many distinguished members of the hierarchy, whose attendance is a signal mark of approbation greatly heartening to the Conference.

There are many national conferences dealing usefully and constructively with farm problems. Consequently it may reasonably be asked: What is the purpose of a Catholic Rural Life Conference? What specific contribution can it hope to make which could not be effected by active Catholic participation in other groups? Of course, it can readily be said that the Catholic Conference is interested in the religious aspects of the rural problem. But why single out agriculture for special consideration among all the industries? The Catholic Church is interested in missionary and educational activities. These missionary and educational activities know no boundary of city and country. Some of the best parish schools in America are on the pleasant plains of agricultural New York, and the Gospel of Christ is the same whether preached in a log school-house in eastern Montana or in a metropolitan basilica. What, then, is the impelling motive of the special concern of the Catholic Church in the agricultural occupation? What is the precise point of departure whence the Catholic Rural Life Conference sets out to win souls to Jesus Christ?

The answer to this question is simple, clear, and entirely satisfying. The burning concern of the Catholic Church with agriculture arises from the altogether unique relationship which exists universally between the agricultural occupation and the central institution of Christian, nay, of all, civilization; namely, the family. The Catholic Church and domestic society are bound together by a hundred ties of nature and Grace into a mutual league of both offense and defense. Or perhaps we should say more accurately: so intimate is the relationship between the welfare of religion and the welfare of the family that the Catholic Church, the divinely constituted teacher of religion, recognizes every enemy to family solidarity as an enemy of her own, and every friend of wholesome family life as a friend and ally of her own. Throughout her history, the Catholic Church has instinctively felt a special kinship with the cultivators of the soil, and her enemies find cause of approbrium in the fact that her sociological and economic teaching, even when expressed by Leo XIII, breathes, as it were, a rural atmosphere. The reason is not far to seek. The farm is the native habitat of the family. Industrial society works against the family and in favor of divorce, desertion, temporary unions, companionate marriage; agricultural society is characterized by the strength, permanence, and unity of the marriage bond and the comparative rarity of its dissolution. That this should be so arises from the very nature of the farm, which requires the home-maker as a partner in the whole enterprise; the managing office of the farm is in the farm home, not in an office building, and the wife and husband share intimately in the business management of their affairs. All rural-urban divorce statistics reflect the natural results of the influence of the two environments on the unity of the home. In ,the rural environment the authority of the parents is more pronounced, the influence of domestic tradition more respected, and children are likely to become more deeply indoctrinated with the religious and moral ideals of their parents than are children in the cities, where a score of agencies absorb the child outside of the home and make him the plaything in his immature years of a hundred influences counteracting the purposes of the Christian home. The farm home provides the only extended occupational apprenticeship left in America; an apprenticeship where the parents are the teachers, and every year of that apprenticeship consolidates the domestic bond.

But important as the considerations which I have just alleged may be in establishing a community of interest between the Church and rural life, it is only when we press these considerations to their practical conclusions that we see the purpose of the Catholic Rural Life Conference in its proper perspective. As a result of the conditions just noted, the farm family is the most important source of population growth. The children are overwhelmingly in the country. We pointed out fifteen years ago that while very much more than half of the population of the United States lived in what was described as urban territory, far more than half of the children of school age were attending rural schools. Since rthat time, with the practical ceasing of immigration, the importance of the American farm as a source of population has become still more striking. The most careful students of the subject point out that owing to the drop in the birth rate a stationary population for the United States will be reached in the next few decades. The official statistics published at the beginning of this year throw a startling light on the subject. Only one city with a population of more than a hundred thousand has enough children to maintain permanently even a stationary population without accessions from the country districts. Most cities have only about three-fourths of the number of children necessary to maintain their present size, not to speak of further growth. With immigration practically stopped, our cities, both large and small, and consequently our city parishes, will depend for their increase mainly on the natural increase of the rural population. After allowing the most generous estimate of the increase of Catholic population by conversion, it will be recognized by all that the principle source of the growth of the Church in this country is to be found in births in Catholic families. From this will be evident the sound basis in Catholic policy provided by the major aims of the Catholic Rural Life Conference. Those aims have been stated in two principal formulas. First: the building up in the United States of ten thousand strong country parishes; and secondly: the anchoring on the land of a larger percentage of the strong, vigorous, and intelligent boys and girls who were born there. At the present time the Catholic Church in America is woefully weak in rural population. Not being strong in the country, its city parishes fail to receive proportionate benefit from the tide of population flowing into the cities. No policy of the Church could be more sound and more intelligently forward-looking than that urged by the Catholic Rural Life Conference of building up vigorous country parishes; of strengthening our roots in the land. It is in the accomplishment of this purpose that the whole varied program of the Conference here assembled is centered and finds its adequate justification.

From the beginning, the Rural Life Conference has been eminently practical in its projects. It has sought definite contributions which it could make toward the fulfillment of its program rather than the framing of general formulas. It saw that the most pressing need of the country parishes and missions was for religious education. And it saw with equal clearness that parish schools could not be maintained in thousands of these small parishes for years to come, indeed that there would be no one to attend the parish schools years hence unless steps were taken immediately to provide religious instruction. There are in the United States, according to the 1935 Catholic Directory, 18,244 Catholic parish and mission churches; there are approximately 8,000 parish schools. There are, then, 10,000 groups of Catholic children who have no opportunity to attend a Catholic school. One of the first resolutions of the Catholic Rural Life Conference at its organization meeting in St. Louis was to recommend religious vacation schools. In the intervening years, it has developed, in the annual edition of its Manual, under the competent editorial direction of Father McNeill, a rounded program of religious instruction for these schools which have now reached into every section of the United States and have begun to find their way into the official life of many dioceses by synodal legislation. The Confraternity of Christian Doctrine has been adopted as the standard framework for this program of religious education. The past summer has seen 200,000 children assembled in 2,000 vacation schools and the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine will not consider this project completed until the number has reached 2,000,000. We are prepared to say that vacation schools can be conducted successfully whether in city or country, under the most difficult conditions. During recent years the two dioceses of Montana undertook a uniform program of establishing Confraternities of Christian Doctrine in every parish and mission. Last summer more than two hundred vacation schools were conducted in the state with over ten thousand children in attendance. Vacation schools were also conducted for the children attending the public schools in every parish having a parochial school, including the two Cathedral parishes. These schools were held in the mountains and on the plains; they were conducted in scores of missions where only eight or ten families could be found in a radius of thirty miles, where children came over difficult gumbo roads in old cars or on horseback; in sections which have been prostrated by four successive seasons of drouth; they have been attended not only by elementary school children but by hundreds of high school boys and girls and by scores of young men and women. The teaching staff in the state was composed of more than two hundred and fifty Sisters, a score of Seminarians, and about five hundred lay teachers. With the exception of about twenty schools for Indian children, each school was financed in the parish or mission in which it was held. The standard session was three hours a day, five days a week, for four weeks. This is, of course, only a part of the religious education program of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine.

While the Catholic Rural Life Conference is engaged in a number of specific projects for the strengthening of the country parish, it does not neglect to emphasize certain fundamental points of view in regard to the industry of farming. There are many who feel that the future of agriculture is with the corporation farm, which will, as the phrase goes, make a business out of farming. Until recently, the most popular illustration of the possibilities of large scale business farming was the operation under one management of a hundred thousand acres rented from the Crow Indians in Eastern Montana. The magazines were full of pictures of the supermachinery employed on that super-wheat ranch. The machinery is now rusted and the super-farm discredited. No! The future of farming, as well as its past, is with the family-operated farm. Our most pressing need is a public policy that will transform the family-farm operator into a farm owner instead of transforming owners into tenants or day laborers on a corporation farm. We might learn something from Denmark. At the time of the American Revolution when free farmers in America withstood Great Britain, the Danish peasants were serfs. By the time of our civil war when the plains of America were opened to universal ownership under our homestead laws to family-farm operators, the Danish peasant had been freed and four percent of them had secured ownership of their farms. Today American farm ownership by farm operators has sunk from nearly one hundred percent to between thirty and forty, while Danish ownership has increased in the same period from four percent to eighty. In other words, the Danish public policy during the past seventy years has been towards family ownership of farms, whereas in our own country under the flaming industrial regime whose fruits the American public is now enjoying, the public policy has been the transfer of ownership of farms from the family operators to the banks and other financial institutions.

If we are to build up thousands of strong rural parishes, it cannot be on the basis of an impoverished population. Nor can the pastor of souls be indifferent to the economic conditions of the families to whom he ministers. He will be interested in the cooperative movement, especially in the financial cooperative known as the Credit Union, for the financial cooperative, as European experience has demonstrated, is the fundamental economic cooperative. He will encourage his people to the widest practicable diversification of products and to local self-sufficiency by the building up of small industries in each community. He will warn them against centering their hopes in the political promises of any party, but urge them to develop from their own experience a sound public agricultural policy, not in hostility to urban consumers but in keeping with the best interests of themselves and of the whole nation.

Above all, he will inculcate the teachings and practices of religion. He will never forget that unhappiness is at root a spiritual malady, which is not removed by a multitude of possessions. We must work untiringly for Social Justice, but we must never forget that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is able to remove a sense of frustration even from the victims of social injustice. While we may not be able in our lifetime to bring about a Christian organization of industry, we can bring to hearts and homes in our own parishes the peace and love of Christ, which surpasses in importance every other gift. May the Catholic Rural Life Conference in the multitude of its projects for the economic, social, hygenic, recreational, and educational life of the countryside, never for a moment lose sight of its central purpose, which is to bring the Life of Christ into the lives of farm families that the Mystical Body of Christ may increase in our land. For of Christ, the members of this Conference, Bishops and priests, religious and laity, are apostles. It is with Christ that we journey and we walk with our steps in His footprints. He it is Who is our Guide and the burning flame that illumines our paths; Pioneer of Salvation, He it is Who draws us toward heaven, towards the Father, and promises success to those that seek in faith. We shall one day be that which He is in glory, if by the faithful imitation of His example we become true Christians, other Christs.

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