The following article by the spiritual moderator for the Jefferson City diocese was originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of Catholic Rural Life magazine:
I was fly-fishing in the foothills of the Missouri Ozarks. I was standing chest deep in a stream of rushing, crystal-clear, cool water, while rays of warm sunshine were filtering through the sycamore, cottonwood and birch trees.
It was paradise. It was everything I love about living in rural Missouri: Living close to the land. Living in the garden.
I was reminding myself of many things that early afternoon, all of which I had been learning so as to catch a trout:
“Remember to keep your line out of the trees Matthew”; “remember to let the line fully roll out on the back-cast and to pause”; “remember not to force the front-cast.”
And then I heard a gentle, quiet little voice in my heart say, “Remember to enjoy it Matthew.”
I believe that little voice was the Holy Spirit.
I am a cradle Catholic, a life-long practitioner of my faith tradition, who found his vocation later in life.
In my early 30s and after a healing immersion into Twelve Step spirituality, I began an earnest search to find a deeper experience of prayer and meditation. This led me to Trappist monks and to a quiet, contemplative life for about 10 years, living in and out of monasteries.
All of that, I now understand, prepared me for the role of a diocesan priest. God always has a plan.
It was a tremendous shift from living as a Trappist monk to serving as pastor of four parishes in central Missouri.
However, with a disciplined practice of daily contemplative prayer, by grace, I am open to contemplation and action while in the midst of endless activity. And I love it.
But still, that little voice in my heart reminds me to enjoy it, too.
I love serving as a priest and pastor in what are rural and largely farming communities. The faith tradition of the farm families I serve inspires me daily.
Yet I am troubled when I read that in our post-modern world, younger parents often feel anxious and guilty much of the time. They believe they are not giving their children enough of their time, because both Mom and Dad are working, and everyone is so busy.
It breaks my heart to know this. What a dreadful thing to feel guilty!
But never did I dream that I would someday be having a similar experience. You see, I spend tremendous amounts of time “administering to my parishes,” but I sometimes feel anxious because I fear that I do not spend enough time “pastoring” to them.
To make matters worse, there are now far fewer priests than ever before.
In the midst of so much busyness, I recently had the wonderful privilege of attending a retreat, entitled “Thriving in Rural Ministry,” presented by Catholic Rural Life (CRL).
I was absolutely delighted to learn about CRL and its founder, Father Edwin O’Hara.
I left the retreat feeling refreshed, rejuvenated and most of all inspired and hopeful that together, we — that is, priests and laity alike — can find the best path forward by working together in these rural parishes we love so much.
Pastors’ rural retreat
The mission of the retreat is varied. Essentially, it is intended to nourish and inspire priests who serve in a rural setting.
It is crafted to provide spiritual refreshment, rural ministry insights and support, as well as individual leadership development, and fraternity with other priests serving in rural communities.
In my opinion, it was more than successful in all aspects of its mission.
What was most inspiring to this priest were the aspects of the program, which are specifically designed to renew rural pastors and provide wonderful ideas to help in this renewal, and how these might best help revitalize our Catholic culture today.
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 alike. It was very exciting.
I learned that Fr. O’Hara founded CSR in 1923 after having been inspired by his ministry to those who lived in sparsely populated areas.
At that time, he came to believe that the Church was the biggest single factor in building-up rural communities.
Can we remember?
I returned home after the retreat and prayed about the experience and pondered all that I had experienced.
I realize that our culture and Church are very different today than they were in 1923, yet I am convinced that Fr. O’Hara’s beliefs still hold merit.
However, today, rather than simply embracing this idea of the Church building-up rural communities, perhaps now is the time for the lay members of Catholic rural communities to participate in the work of rebuilding our Church.
Could this be God’s plan in all of this?
I confess that whenever we pray for priestly and religious vocations at our Masses (which I earnestly pray for) I also pray at the same time for more lay vocations.
While attending the seminary in preparation for the Priesthood, I learned that at the Second Vatican Council, our Church produced four Major Constitutions, three Declarations and nine Decrees.
My favorite instructor insisted that it could be argued that all of these extraordinary and sweeping documents could be summed up in one declarative sentence: “Vatican II was the universal call to holiness and the call to full and active participation in the Church for one and all; religious and laity alike.”
What does this mean?
I wonder if with my contemplative background, I can help these busy parents to focus on what is most important and to remind them (and myself) to be still sometimes, to know God.
Can we remember to turn and thank God for our blessings? Can we remember to keep the Sabbath day holy and to spend more time in rest, enjoying leisure with those we love best?
And what can the wonderful lay folks to whom I minister teach me? How can they help me to administer to the parishes so as to allow me the exquisite privilege of pastoring to them?
Can we learn to be partners who help to build each other and our Church up?
Perhaps we can remind each other to remember to enjoy it.
Let them shine brightly
I loved learning about this larger community, this larger Body of Christ in the USA that is this wonderful organization called Catholic Rural Life.
I pray that all together, we can learn to celebrate our Catholic faith and be proud of our incomparable faith traditions and heritage in the rural life.
Let us place these precious gems high on the lampstand and let them shine brightly on our world today.
Let us join together and head out as workers to harvest in the fields.
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.