By Anne Marie Cox
Nearly 30 years to the day when Pope John Paul II made a historic visit to Iowa, affirming a rural lifestyle and the work of those in agriculture, another man from Italy came to the Des Moines area.
Archbishop Celestino Migliore, a Vatican diplomat who has served the Catholic Church in countries across the world, said he, like many coming to the papal anniversary celebration, was born on a farm.
He paid tribute to rural life, saying he owed much to the lessons he learned on the family farm. In fact, he learned English when his father purchased an American tractor that came with a manual printed in English. His father bought a pocket dictionary and left it up to his kids to decipher the instructions.
Speaking from experience, having witnessed firsthand the changes happening in agriculture, the archbishop said no matter what technology makes possible, no matter how economically beneficial, decisions must be made in consideration of the common good and with responsibility to God’s creation.
“Man has been able to use and abuse” resources in nature according to his whim without taking into account consequences, Archbishop Migliore said. It’s as if nature would not retaliate and present humanity with a hefty bill, and now, policy makers face issues related to pollution, climate change and more, he said.
Archbishop Migliore was among religious, educational, political and agricultural leaders appearing at an Oct. 2-3 symposium in West Des Moines, Iowa, in celebration of the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Iowa on Oct. 4, 1979. The symposium “What God Has Created and Human Hands Have Made” focused on the Holy Father’s message and its relevancy today and for the future.
The celebration kicked off on Friday, Oct. 2, with nearly 800 Catholic school children going to Living History Farms to learn about the pope’s visit. An interfaith prayer service was held in the late afternoon, and then the symposium began, concluding with a Mass on Saturday at Dowling Catholic High School, in West Des Moines.
On the actual day of the anniversary, Des Moines Bishop Richard Pates celebrated Mass at St. Patrick Church near Cumming, the small country church south of Des Moines where the Holy Father first stopped to visit with farm families.
Throughout the anniversary celebration, a common theme arose: Although society has advanced technology that can benefit people, it must be remembered that God is the creator and all of creation must be treated responsibly keeping in mind the common good.
“I think it’s important that we reiterate what was said on the day of the pope’s visit,” said farmer Joe Hays, who penned the letter inviting the pope to Iowa. “If the pope would have been in this society today, 30 year ago, we would have said we have a ‘green’ pope.”
Keynote speaker Archbishop Migliore, the pope’s representative to the United Nations, spoke of finding harmony between science and technology and safeguarding the environment for future generations.
“Science and technology are the great gift of the western world to human civilization,” he said. However, they have been used for power and profit. They should be used for the common good, he said.
“Protecting the environment means more than defending,” said Archbishop Migliore. Safeguarding the environment means being responsible in caring for it, he said.
“While working for the best ways to protect the environment and sustain development, we must also work for justice within our societies and nations,” he said. “We must consider how, in most countries today, it is the poor and the powerless that most directly bear the burden of environmental degradation.
“The battle to eke out a bare existence perpetrates a vicious cycle of poverty,” he continued.
The archbishop was seconded in that thought by Madeleine Philbin, regional director of Catholic Relief Services.
“Where do the poorest of the poor live? For the most part, they live in rural communities,” she said. “Just as farmers in the U.S. have invented new technologies to increase crop production, farmers in rural villages are in need of methods to improve their approach to crop management and crop diversification, irrigation, storage and marketing.”
It’s a matter of life and death, she said.
Father Robert Grant, a professor at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, proposed what he called a radical idea, that of redistributive suffering. It addresses the notion that those least responsible for the environmental degradation are bearing the most suffering from the consequences.
He encouraged people to make lifestyle choices that remind them of their relationship with God. This could mean doing with less than what they normally experience as a means of joining their suffering with Christ’s suffering. People are not defined by what they consume but by their relationship with God, he argued.
Asked how he, specifically, witnesses to this, Fr. Grant said he is a vegetarian and has personal practices that remind him of his relationship with God. He hasn’t owned a television or slept in a bed for 25 years.
He brought three St. Ambrose students to make presentations.
Aggie Gaul, of Shelby County, stood, congratulated the students for coming and said, “Hopefully they really mean those words and carry them into their adult lives.”
Among the discussions, there was talk of hope. Shelby County farmer Ron Rosmann said in 1983 he went “cold turkey” and began farming without herbicides and pesticides. His organic farm is used for experiments to learn more about organic farming.
John Carr, of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said it’s important to look at agriculture issues through a lens of faith.
“So much is at stake in moral and human terms,” he said. “Food sustains life itself. It’s not just another product.”
The Catholic Church uses old virtues — like prudence, considering the common good, and giving priority for the poor — in addressing new environmental issues, he said.
Ken Quinn has seen death as a result of starvation, war and weather-related issues. The former U.S. ambassador and current president of the World Food Prize Foundation raises awareness and funds for agriculture research to help the starving of the world.
“Feeding people ought to be something that brings people together,” he said, adding, “It’s important to have conferences like this to keep the message prominent and inspire.”
(Anne Marie Cox is editor of The Catholic Mirror, newspaper of the Des Moines Diocese.)