Rural priest imparts wisdom, experience on ‘Laudato Si’’ panel

Categories: Around the Diocese

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Before entering the priesthood, Father Joseph Backowski studied water resources management and soil science at the University of Minnesota in Crookston. Father Backowski’s parishes, St. Mary of the Presentation in Breckenridge and St. Thomas in Kent, in the Red River Valley rest in the heart of sugar beet country, where he is often found rolling up his sleeves and pitching in at several local farms and his own garden.

About 350 people gathered with Minnesota’s Catholic bishops Sept. 9 at the University of St. Thomas for a panel discussion on Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’.” Among the panelists was Father Backowski who provided his pastoral perspective and offered practical resources to encourage living out the Holy Father’s appeal to seriously look at caring for our common home, the environment.

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Father Joseph Backowski, second from left, speaks during a panel discussion on Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si’ ” Sept. 9 at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Photo by Kristi Anderson / The Visitor

The panel was developed by the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the bishops, and co-sponsored by Catholic Rural Life and the University of St. Thomas.

Father Backowski explained that, in his area, he finds himself in the midst of what might be referred to as “corporate farmers.”

“What I’d like to remind everyone is that these corporate farmers are more like corporate family farmers who farm 500-20,000 acres. These are my parishioners,” he said. “Part of why they are so large is because, in order to survive in a day with commodity prices as they are, they must be that large and they must incorporate.

“But these families often employ many of their friends and neighbors,” he continued. “These are my parishioners, whether it’s the employees or the owners themselves. I say that to remind you that we shouldn’t get stuck in the idea of corporate farming. I want to remind you that these are human beings with the dignity of being created and loved by God.”

Father Backowski identified two specific areas of hardships facing these farmers: the lack of sufficient willing labor and significant problems with soil erosion. And, he recognized two areas of growth in big agriculture — a growing openness to monitoring micro-nutrients in the soil which means taking a better look at the health of the soil, and second, acknowledging the blessings that come with technology, such as variable rate applications for fertilizers and pesticides that can help reduce pollution.

Culture of encounter

Father Backowski said for him, the question becomes, “how do we reach out to these people created and loved by God and who produce our food?”

From his time in 4-H where he learned to grow flowers and vegetables with his family along with spending time on his uncle’s dairy farm, he learned at a young age the relational aspect of connecting with the land and with people.

In his encyclical, Pope Francis stressed that all things exist in a “network of being” which Father Backowski emphasized includes all human beings.

“When we look at this in the scheme of the Gospels, it’s at the human level that our Lord became man, that he entered into the network of human beings, the incarnation,” he said. “Part of the answer of how we reach out to people in big agriculture is that they will only want to know Christ and how Christ wants us to care for the earth if they know us and that they know we are willing to experience some of the same difficulties they do.”

Father Backowski said that many of his encounters with corporate farming families happen through his own love of gardening, farming and his two John Deere tractors.

“This has opened up many opportunities for conversation,” he said. “It is how man enters the network of humanity.”

To illustrate, he described an ancient Native American farming practice.

“The corn provides a place for the beans to grow up toward heaven. The beans provide nitrogen for the corn. The squash and pumpkins provide shade to keep the weeds out and to preserve moisture. In this we see the network of being taking place in nature,” he said.

So, what can be done? Father Backowski encouraged people to find ways to enter into the “network of being” in their own communities. “Rather than washing your hands of nature, keep your hands in nature,” he said.

The importance of family

St. Cloud Bishop Donald Kettler attended the panel, along with all the Minnesota bishops.

“This is a critical issue for us today,” Bishop Kettler said. “By being present at this event, we as bishops affirm its importance. Anything we can do to show others its importance is a good thing.”

While a lot of the information was not new to him, he had a personal interest in the topic because of the time he spent in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and now in the Diocese of St. Cloud. Bishop Kettler said he wants to affirm the value and importance of family in agriculture.

“So many of our parishes are rural so it is important for us to be looking at these issues. Its important that we begin to think about the environment and see what we can do,” he said.

“It doesn’t have to be something that’s going to touch the whole world but just something we can do locally to preserve the environment. All of the universe, everything in it, is a blessing and is a gift to us. Instead of using it all up, we ought to be doing things that preserve it and allow it to be passed on in an even better state.”

Other panelists included Christopher Thompson, academic dean of the St. Paul Seminary; Cecilia Calvo, project coordinator for theEnvironmental Justice Program of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Daniel Finn, Clemens Professor in economics and liberal arts and professor of theology at St. John’s University; and Fred Callens, of Callens Honey Farm, a 35-acre farm in St. Leo, Minnesota.

“One thing I learned in my ministry is that sometimes we can fall into a trap thinking our work is purely sacramental and administrative,”

Father Backowski said. “But really, it is rooted in the incarnation. For me as a rural pastor, some of my greatest experiences have been working on my two John Deere tractors, working in the gardens and working in the fields. It’s not primary, but it’s a way God comes to his people through his priests.”