Blessings of the land celebrated in Rural Life Mass

By Mary P. Walker
Senior Correspondent

Although much of the population of the Austin Diocese is located in urban areas, there are communities that rely on agriculture for their economy and enjoy a lifestyle that is dependent on the land. 
Each year, for the past 26 years, the diocese has paused to thank God for his gift of the harvest, the dedication of farmers, ranchers, and their families, and the blessings of rural life. St. Ann Parish in Somerville was the site of this year’s annual Rural Life Mass and dinner on Aug. 20. The Austin Diocesan Council of Catholic Women (DCCW) sponsored the Mass, which was hosted by the Eastern and St. Ann Councils of Catholic Women.
To accommodate the large number of attendees, Bishop Joe Vásquez, Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Garcia, and priests of the diocese concelebrated Mass in the parish hall. A combined women’s choir of the Eastern Council of Catholic Women led the music, and the decorations were crafted from symbols and products of rural life, including flowers and plants, produce, preserves and homemade breads. Mass began with an honor guard of the Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus.
Praising the work of farmers and ranchers, Bishop Vásquez expressed his gratitude to God for the blessings of agriculture and the faith-filled qualities of rural life. The congregation also prayed for rural communities that were affected by unfavorable weather and natural disasters. 
Each year, the DCCW recognizes lay Catholics and a member of the clergy who have made significant contributions to faith and rural life. A highlight of the evening was when Karen Pinard, the DCCW’s Rural Life committee chair, presented this year’s awards.
Charles and Ann Schneider of St. Joseph Parish in Cyclone were recipients of the award for the laity. Pinard explained that they were nominated because they exemplify the way that Catholic farming should be lived, encompassing faith, family, community and tending to the land. 
The Schneiders raise corn and cotton, and are active in their parish and community. Charles is a past director of a gin cooperative, a lector and a member of the Knights of Columbus. Ann is currently president of the Altar Society, helps with bereavement dinners, and quilts with women in the parish. Both have served their parish in many other endeavors.
Surprised by the award, the Schneiders praised the joys of rural life. They like the independence of farming, and believe that the family farm was a great environment for raising their three daughters. 
“It’s rewarding to raise a beautiful crop and see the Lord’s hand,” Charles said.
Another surprise of the evening, and one that required a bit of misdirection to keep it secret, was the clergy award, which was given to Bishop Vásquez. The bishop was led to believe that St. Ann’s pastor, Father Uche Obikwelu, would receive the award. Surprised by the joke, Bishop Vásquez expressed his appreciation for the honor.
Pinard said that Catholics understand the bishop to be their “shepherd,” and the faithful are his “flock” — a direct reference to rural life. Bishop Vásquez tends to his flock with loving care. He has always respected and promoted the lifestyles of farmers, ranchers and their families. He enjoys being with them, is knowledgeable about the problems they face, prays for them, and is gracious in his ministry to them.
After Mass and the presentations, another quality of rural life, the deep bond of community, was enthusiastically celebrated through a delicious and bountiful dinner. The attendees and the food they brought reflected the cultural diversity of the farming and ranching heritages found throughout the diocese. Dishes ranged from grilled pork, prepared by the Knights of Columbus, to fresh salads, a variety of vegetables, homemade cake, pies, cookies and other desserts. 
Cathleen and Kenneth Noska, members of St. John the Baptist Parish in Fayetteville, are farmers who raise hay, cattle and chickens. Citing the importance of community found among farmers and ranchers, they made the trip to join in solidarity with those who know and love rural life, and have experienced its joys and challenges firsthand.  
As farmers, they echoed the sense of accomplishment that others expressed in working with God to raise a good product, as well as enjoying the simple blessings of a vocation that immerses them in the beauty of nature. 
“It’s the quiet life. You can look up and see the stars at night,” Cathleen said.