People’s Pastoral by the Catholic Committee of Appalachia rooted in the concept of ‘Magisterium of the Poor’
By Michael M. Barrick
SPENCER, W.Va. – Reading the latest People’s Pastoral from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) is like lingering over a classic work of art – especially if that artwork is Picasso’s “Guernica.” That is because, just like Picasso’s most famous work forces us to reflect upon man’s inhumanity to man, the CCA pastoral immediately challenges the reader to learn about and then expose great social injustices being perpetrated upon the people and land of Appalachia.
The pastoral, titled, “The Telling Takes us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us,” pulls the reader in with eloquent but blunt free verse, breathtaking artwork, photographs and even the rare literary element of an Interlude.
It is the third pastoral published by the CCA in 40 years. “This Land is Home to Me: A Pastoral Letter on the Poverty and Powerlessness in Appalachia,” was released in 1975. “At Home in the Web of Life: A Pastoral Message on Sustainable Communities in Appalachia,” was released in 1995. They remain in print and available from the CCA.
The CCA identifies itself as “… a network of faith-based people raising a prophetic voice for Appalachia & her people.” This new pastoral seems entirely consistent with that mission.
Notably, unlike the first two, this one is not endorsed by the bishops of Appalachia; instead, rooted in Catholic social teaching and liberation theology borrowed from social justice movements in the Southern hemisphere, it is a direct appeal from and on behalf of the poor and the earth itself. As Michael Iafrate, the pastoral’s writer, explained, it is “Speaking truth to power.”
This includes not only traditional church structures, as evidenced by “Lifting up ‘The Magisterium of the Poor’” as Iafrate said, but also political and economic structures as well. Additionally, the pastoral also acknowledges that “The earth has an authority that the church needs to acknowledge and respect,” noted Iafrate, echoing thoughts expressed by Pope Francis in his ecological encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home.”
Jeannie Kirkhope, the coordinator for CCA, added, “Current bishops told us that had they been around when the first two pastorals were written that they wouldn’t have signed it.” She continued, “People have their own authority in the church. We didn’t feel it necessary to get their endorsement.” Iafrate added, “We felt that there were number of issues that the CCA wanted and needed to speak to – mountaintop removal and fracking, as well as marginalized people in Appalachia and the church. We needed to speak about this. We have asked bishops to speak to these issues, but they don’t’ for a variety of reasons. We knew they would not sign on as a body, that maybe one or two would sign. Out of that realization came that sense that the first two pastorals were voices of the people and the bishops endorsed it. We decide to push forward whether they participated or not.”
As it turns out, shared Iafrate, the election of Pope Francis was affirming of the pastoral, which was in the works for several years. “Little did we know there would be a new pope. Little did we know that this pope would have his own encyclical in the works. It was well timed. Of course it was not related to the people’s pastoral, but it was a grace-filled incident.”
While the CCA did not reach out to bishops, a bishop new to the region did offer to provide a cover letter to be sent to all bishops in the United States along with a copy of the pastoral. Iafrate shared, “Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky. shares with the bishops that CCA is living out what Pope Francis has called us to do. We are thankful for his support.”
Iafrate acknowledges that just as the encyclical by Pope Francis has been labeled as extreme in its criticism of market-driven consumerism, so too might this pastoral. In fact, he admitted, “We hope it is subversive because there are a lot of political, economic, and church relationships that need to be subverted.”
He added the pastoral is consistent with the CCA’s mission. “This goes along with being prophetic.” He continued, “This new letter is radical in what it says. It calls for radical changes to church” He argued, though, “It is not a call to radical change apart from examples of how people are already doing things. That is really important.” Besides, he argued, “People can resist radical change all they want, but everything is going to have to change whether we want it to or not, whether we participate in it or not. The planet is going to make sure things change, whether human beings participate in it or not. We can only resist it so much and for so long. That’s on a global scale and in Appalachia.”
The pastoral is written in free verse, as were the first two. Iafrate pointed out that this literary approach was chosen because “It is consistent with the Appalachian heritage of writing poetry and storytelling. It fits with the lyrical way of writing in Appalachia.” Kirkhope added, “It is easily readable. We’re lucky because Michael is both a theologian and musical artist. So we got the best of both worlds with Michael as author. It is both history and artistic.”
The dedication page says simply, “For Walter Sullivan.” Sullivan served as bishop for the Diocese of Richmond for roughly three decades, including the earliest year of the CCA. He is considered its greatest champion. He passed away in 2012. Kirkhope shared, “Before he retired, Bishop Sullivan was talking about the need for a people’s pastoral focusing on mountaintop removal. He was very involved with the first two letters. He was one of the founding bishops of CCA. He was our liaison to the church hierarchy and our biggest fan.” Iafrate added, “There is not a title in the dedication because that’s just not the kind of bishop he was. His ministry was focused on empowering the people of God. He was not worried about different classes of clerics.” Kirkhope recalled, “He was concerned about the earth. Early on, we invited the bishops of central Appalachia to participate in a flyover of mountaintop removal sites. Only three showed up. He was the only one that understood and was completely behind us.”
As the pastoral undeniably ties together the poor and the earth – that to listen to the poor is to listen to the earth – it manages to do so based upon Catholic social justice traditions without being limiting in its appeal. Iafrate explains, “We talk about the planet we live on as having sacredness. That is something we share across traditions when our traditions are at their best. We form a community across traditions. It is deeply rooted in our Catholic faith, but goes beyond it as well, knowing that is how we must all work together.”
The pastoral is divided into three parts. Part One, “Our Stories: The Grounds of our Struggles” tells of the stories gathered through hundreds of interviews by CCA over the last few years, including minorities, those in vulnerable communities and coalfield residents and miners. Part Two, “Our Traditions: The Ground of our Vision,” is rooted in Catholic customs and traditions. Part Three, “Our Actions: The Ground of our Hope,” offers examples of what others are doing to build a region free of the fossil fuel mono-economy and provides some other possible alternatives for consideration.
Artist Christopher Santer, a West Virginia native now living in Minnesota provided the artwork for the covers and a center spread. Iafrate offered, “It’s very striking. We wanted it to be top notch and as prophetic as the words.” The design was done by Liz Pavlovic from Morgantown, W.Va.
Additionally, the Introduction was written by Beth Davies, a Virginia resident and founding CCA member. An Afterword was written by Eddie Sloan of Wheeling, W.Va. and a doctoral candidate at Boston College. His remarks were directed primarily to young people. Notably, the pastoral also includes an Interlude, which was written by Janet Keating, the executive director of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, based in Huntington, W.Va. While Iafrate said the use of an Interlude came along out of necessity in determining the arrangement of the pastoral, an Interlude is an old literary device that is generally allegorical and rooted in morality. That is certainly the case with Keaton’s piece, as it is titled, “A Cerulean Warbler Speaks.” Keating explained, “The … interlude is one example of the creative listening that is possible when we take seriously the intrinsic dignity of the smallest voices of creation.”
Iafrate said that the focus on the poor is long overdue and is needed to help “change the stories we tell.” He explained, “Appalachians understand the importance of telling their story. At the same time, we’ve gotten use to telling the same old story of Appalachia. Others tell stories that are based in stereotypes. They’ve bought into the same old story that we are an energy region that provides coal and other resources for America’s needs. It’s like it’s our patriotic duty to sacrifice our well-being. We buy into these myths. We live by them. It shapes the way we live life and community together.
“What this pastoral is saying is that we need to live out alternative stories. We need to lift up the experiences of people that run counter to stories of the region. We need to start hearing stories of people who have been hurt by industry in mountaintop removal and fracking. The main new story we need to tell is that God did not give us this planet only as a resource to exploit, but gave us a home. We need to start changing the story of how we live in harmony with one another and take care of the home we’ve been given to live in.”
That storytelling, he said, is up to modern-day “saints.” Iafrate explains, “The word saint in the document has quotes around it, which signals I am doing something different with this word. We do have saints in the tradition of the church like St. Francis of Assisi that can inspire us. What I mean is that modern day saints are people who have a deep sensitivity for the suffering of people and earth in this region. They provide examples of how to live and work for justice. The best word in our tradition is to use the word saint. It does not mean that we are perfect, but have that fire for justice that is so important for CCA and many communities that are struggling.”
He is hoping such saints will emerge from people of all ages, but particularly in their 20s and 30s. “This change isn’t going to happen without them, without young people. We are all aware of the out migration from West Virginia and Appalachia. It is not getting better. If we want this place we love to thrive, we need to listen to these young people to find out while they’re leaving.” He continued, “They have a vision of what they want their lives to be. They love this area. But they feel they need to leave. It’s a love-hate relationship. They want to stay, but can’t find work. The transformation that we need will not occur without younger people.”
Regardless of one’s age, though, Iafrate points folks back to the pastoral’s title. “We need to take our place in this story. It is our small way of helping marginalized people – of lifting up the magisterium of the poor.”
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016.
Beth Davis writes in the Foreword, “When the bishops gathered at Vatican II, they described the Church as ‘the People of God’—not only the pope, bishops, and clergy, but the entire People of God. They further articulated in Gaudium et Spes how the Church was to be present in the modern world, and their key was dialogue. It is not a new thing for the Church as institution to lead and speak out on issues it chooses to take a stand on, on its own turf. It is a new thing for the Church to listen, truly listen, to what people are saying in their terms, on their turf,”
Like the first two pastorals, this latest is written in free verse rather than prose. Consequently, to conserve space, line breaks are identified by the / symbol.
All excerpts are © 2015 Catholic Committee of Appalachia. Used with Permission. Selected excerpts follow.
Here in Appalachia, / we are people of stories. / These mountains have heard / the stories we tell, / and have told, / across time and space. / The mountains hold our stories, / and they have stories of their own.
Wherever we are, / and whatever our relationship to these hills, / telling our stories / connects us once again, / takes us home, / and gives us a place / from which we can act for justice.
Today, the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) / offers this third pastoral letter / as a prophetic word spoken / for new realities among us. / We recommit to reading the signs of the times, / listening to the stories / of the places and people who hurt most, / to create new paths forward / toward greater justice, peace, and wholeness / for our communities and for creation. /
In this statement, / we recognize a deepening ecological crisis / and new pressures on our struggling communities.
We remember and recommit / to hearing the voices of the poor and of Earth / and to voices we are still learning to discern.
To listen deeply to the authority / of the poor and of Earth in this way,… / as magisterium, … / (is) a recognition / of the different gifts and roles / among the diverse Body of Christ, / and of the truth that there are authorities / to which all of God’s people, / including the powerful, / must bow in humility and reverence.
Many Appalachians, / especially those who live close to desecrated places, / have come to believe that Jesus’ commandment / to love and serve one’s neighbor / includes a special love for our neighbor, Earth.
Mountaintop removal is an act / of radical violence that leaves / monstrous scars across Earth’s body / resembling moonscapes, / dead zones on our planet / which cannot be restored to their prior / life-giving condition in our lifetimes.
Women continue to face / significant barriers in our region / which make fullness of life difficult. … / Sexism is transmitted and upheld / through church traditions / which explicitly or implicitly / misuse scripture and faith traditions / to justify the exclusion, domination, / and abuse of women. / Women’s roles continue to be limited / not only in churches, / but also in the family, in the wider community, / and in the region’s male-centered economy.
Accidents are not as random as they appear, / but are the result of a culture of disregard / for worker safety. / Coal industry villains come and go, / but the attitude which places profit above safety / is deeply embedded in the coal economy.
Miners still struggle regularly / against attempts to roll back / hard-won victories of better pay and benefits. / People of faith, / including laity, religious, and clergy, / have stood with retired miners / in public protests against the attempt / by a handful of mining companies / to eliminate health and retirement benefits / by spinning off their union mines / into new subsidiary companies / and then filing for bankruptcy.
The widespread presence of food insecurity / is an ironic reversal for a region / that was once populated by subsistence farms / and where family gardens were once popular.
Residents near fracking sites / in both rural and urban areas, / as well as health officials, / have begun to describe serious health concerns / connected to this industry.
Many people in our church communities, … / must admit that we have not heard or taken seriously / the experiences of people of color in Appalachia.
Although acts of genocide / against Native people are historical facts, / Native communities are alive and present here today, / including Cherokee, Shawnee, / Blackfoot, and Monacan peoples.
Some Appalachians believe / that same-sex relationships / threaten the natural state of things, / including the institutions of marriage and family. / But many Appalachian people / identify as gay or lesbian, / and have done so throughout history.
We know that the way of life / enjoyed by a small percentage of the human family, / and the distribution of wealth / enjoyed by an even smaller percentage, / are profoundly unjust and unsustainable / and climate change is rapidly / bringing us to the brink of disaster.
Creation is God’s garden, / and … human communities / exist within God’s garden as caretakers, / receiving with gratitude all of God’s good gifts / and using them only in ways / that nurture and sustain life to the full.
We shall no longer be crucified / upon the cross of coal.
Appalachian activism has a long history, / and in the struggles of history and of today, / being an activist is not a hobby or a luxury. / People have decided to act, / and to act boldly, / because life depends on changing / the way we live together. / As Larry Gibson often said, / “We’re either going to be an activist, / or we’re going to be annihilated.”
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