Father Matthew J. Flatley got back from Minnesota with a fire in his chest and dirt on his shoes.
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight had sent him and Father Colin Franklin, members of the diocesan Presbyteral Council, to Buffalo, Minnesota, for a retreat sponsored by Catholic Rural Life (CRL).
The theme was “Thriving in Rural Ministry.”
Both priests serve in predominantly rural areas of the diocese.
Fr. Flatley is pastor of Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary parish in Vienna, Holy Guardian Angels parish in Brinktown, St. Aloysius parish in Argyle and the St. Boniface mission in Koeltztown.
Fr. Franklin is pastor of St. Joseph parish in Edina, St. John parish in Memphis and the mission of St. Aloysius in Baring and chaplain of the Kirksville Newman Center.
Fr. Flatley said the retreat was inspiring and enlightening.
“It was crafted to provide spiritual refreshment, rural-ministry insights and support, individual leadership development, and fraternity with other priests serving in rural communities,” he said.
He believes it was successful on all fronts, especially in giving pastors ideas for helping revitalize the Church in rural communities.
“I came away with a renewed vision and passion of the vocation of rural ministry, both for priests and for those faithful Catholics who live in these communities,” he said.
“The biggest single factor”
Bishop McKnight was recently appointed to the CRL board of directors.
Father Edwin O’Hara, a son of Irish immigrants who had settled in rural Minnesota and worked the land, founded the organization in 1923.
He got the idea from ministering to people living in sparsely populated, agrarian areas.
“Fr. O’Hara came to believe that the Church is the biggest single factor in building up rural communities,” Fr. Flatley noted.
Although the Church and culture in this country have changed profoundly in past 97 years, Fr. Flatley maintains that Fr. O’Hara’s beliefs still hold merit.
“CRL strives to create a network of relationships with pastors serving rural communities who can encourage, sharpen and help one another,” Fr. Flatley noted.
“I believe this is crucial,” he added, “but most of all, I came away from the retreat with a passion to also make this same opportunity available for faithful, lay Catholics.”
He said Catholic laypeople in rural areas have the unprecedented opportunities to participate in the work of building up the Church.
To help them, CRL offers ideas and programs in areas of education, advocacy and inspiration.
It also provides resources and networking for rural ministry and outreach, along with ideas for rural-life celebrations.
“I came back here determined to see a celebration of an outdoor Eucharist — with the bishop’s permission of course — along with a barn dance,” said Fr. Flatley.
“These precious gems”
Both priests are eager to share with fellow clergy what they learned on the retreat, so it can filter into parishes.
Fr. Flatley wants to make sure Catholic farmers in this diocese are equipped and ready to embrace the theology and identity associated with “the Vocation of the Agriculture Leader.”
The key is to find new and improved ways to mix rural life and Catholic life in ways that strengthen both.
“Can both Church and community thrive with our Catholic heritage being lived, proclaimed and celebrated proudly?” he asked.
“All the while, how do we best renew the faith of those who live the rural life in our diocese, in our time?” he continued.
He said the Church must celebrate and affirm Catholic farmers and the vital role they play in providing food for our world.
“Who better than the women and men who work the land to teach us about the stewardship of creation?” he inquired. “Can we have workshops around the theology of ‘Laudato sí,’ the second encyclical of Pope Francis?”
It all begins with praying together, learning from one another and joining in a chorus of praise and thanksgiving.
“We need to be celebrating our Catholic faith and our incomparable faith traditions and heritage in the rural life,” said Fr. Flatley.
“Let us place these precious gems high on the lamp stand and let them shine brightly on our world today!”