In today’s food and restaurant world, the commonly heard mantra “farm to table” means people want seasonal, farm-fresh ingredients.
Has James Ennis played a part in the insistent demands for fresh food? That’s hard to say. But he has surely become a prime mover in the Catholic farm-food-and-faith world.
When you first meet Ennis, he might strike you as just another businessman on his way to the office. But he is the exact opposite. As executive director of Catholic Rural Life in St. Paul, Minn., and a devout Catholic, Ennis instead is found on the road, visiting farmers, attending conferences and working with numerous groups to renew the spiritual, social and economic life of America’s farmers.
“People have become so disconnected from the land,” he said, “but that is where our food comes from; it is a gift from God.”
A native Californian raised in an Irish-Catholic family, Ennis’ pathway to his present calling was circuitous. Drifting away from Catholicism as a teen, as a disillusioned college freshman, he rediscovered God, thanks to a fervent prayer to Jesus. He entered a Bible study group led by a Protestant missionary and discovered in its first session he had placed God in fourth place in his list of priorities.
“That was the beginning of my conversion and the coming alive of my faith,” he said, promoting his return to the Catholic faith after being a Protestant for 22 years.
After graduating from college, Ennis took several different paths — he served as an overseas missionary, received an MBA and accepted a job in the food industry with Pillsbury. “And that is how I got into the food world,” he said, “by working in a Fortune 500-style business.”
During the intervening years, Ennis, his family and several close friends came back to the Catholic faith. His brother-in-law had given him a copy of Scott Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home. “I read it in a weekend,” he said.
Ennis realized that, for the first time, he saw and understood the beauty of Christ in the Church. “Of course, he had always been there, but I just didn’t see it,” he said. “For me, it took that much time to understand and appreciate the Church, a church of souls and bodies that are part of the community of the saints.”
Ennis’ secular food job required him to attend national environmental and food conferences, where he heard complaints about Christians exercising dominion over the earth. “I was troubled by that and by the anti-Catholic sentiments I often heard,” he said.
After reading St. John Paul II’s theology of the body, Ennis longed for a theology of creation and questioned a moral theologian about it, who said he was working on a project to address that very problem. Ennis realized that a lot of Catholics had become blind to the environment and to nature as a part of Catholicism, yet the Church has so much to say about it. With that realization, when the position for executive director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference opened, he applied and was accepted.
Now renamed Catholic Rural Life, the organization, located at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, has been operative for more than 92 years. Its goals have always been to connect Catholic rural farmers to their faith.
But with Ennis’ energetic leadership and vision, its threefold mission now includes advocating for a more sustainable food supply; rejuvenating the spiritual and economic well-being of America’s rural communities; and inspiring a sense of wonder about the natural world for today and for the future.
“When I became executive director, the challenge was how to help equip leaders in rural communities to connect their faith with their work and to advocate on behalf of all who participate in the production of our food — farmers, farm workers, food processors, all of them,” he said. “We work with 96 dioceses throughout the country to promote the dignity of the people in rural communities.”
Catholicism is not an abstract concept; it is all about man’s role on earth, he explained. The Church affirms farmers, he added, recalling St. John Paul II’s visit to rural America in 1979.
“When he visited Iowa, he drew the largest outdoor crowd ever to come together here, over 300,000 people,” he said. “Pope John Paul II told farmers that they are critical to bringing God to the world and that they must be good stewards of the land because the land and natural resources are a gift from God. And we need farmers who see their work as a vocation, as a way to serve others.”
Subsequently, Ennis and his staff have interviewed several of those who attended the Pope’s visit, some of whom reflected on the need to change farming life. And since that change is Catholic Rural Life’s mission, Ennis works ecumenically with everyone, holding and attending conferences with different faiths and even with atheists. As a result, Ennis has noticed that many more farmers from many backgrounds now view farming as a vocation, not just as a job.
With the 2015 release of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, the Catholic Church is building upon the historical doctrines of St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict.
“It is a watershed moment,” said Ennis, as further confirmation of the farmer’s role in God’s plan. “After all, if we have no farmers, we have no food.”
Does Ennis himself do a little farming? He does some in his backyard 20-foot by 20-foot plot.
“I battle pesky pests by moving tomato plants around, and my lettuces I share with rabbits,” he said. “But it is rewarding work.”