“How is it that today we spit in the hand of the one who feeds you?” In the mouth of this young farmer, the question full of bitterness was enough to move Mgr Jacolin. On January 30, the current administrator bishop of Vendée finished his pastoral visit to the deanery of La Roche-sur-Yon. An impromptu meeting takes place in the hangars of Gaec* Les Coteaux du Marillet in Thorigny (Vendée), in front of a row of impassive cattle.
A few hours later, François Jacolin spoke in a public message: “I want, in my name and that of the entire Church in Vendée, to thank (the farmers) for feeding us and offering us quality products which we We are proud to shape our landscapes and maintain them, to remind us through their work of the grandeur of nature and of this land that they bring to fruition.” His message is also addressed to French artisanal fishermen in the Bay of Biscay who must suspend their work until February 20. Like him, in recent days, more than thirty bishops have expressed their solidarity with the farmers who have made their anger heard on the public highway.
This particular sensitivity of French prelates is also the sign of a relatively recent new awareness. That, trying at first, of the reality of the end of the traditional, thousand-year-old network of Christian presence in the rural world. But that, also stimulating, of a new vitality of these same territories where the Christian presence is reinventing itself. Awareness is therefore well underway, particularly among the generation of young bishops who often begin their careers in small rural dioceses. Because among the bishops, less than a quarter of them now come from a peasant family and were, for the most part, born during the 1950s. Mgr Jacolin, 74 years old, is one of them. Only one bishop in title has previously worked on an agricultural farm: this is Philippe Mousset, bishop of Périgueux (Dordogne), who worked for several years as an agricultural technician before entering the seminary.
* Joint farming group
From modesty to membership
The now regular visit of a delegation of bishops to the Agricultural Show in Paris is part of this ongoing awakening. As is often the case, bishops move forward with humility in these sometimes technical areas. Mgr Habert, for example, then bishop of Séez and yet already in charge of the rural mission of the Conference of Bishops of France, admitted at the end of one of his visits: “I have no particular competence on these questions but as Christian, I demonstrate that this subject is important and I encourage a dialogue.” A modest posture generally appreciated by their farmer interlocutors. But with the current crisis, membership is becoming even more frank. Thus, the Bishop of Cahors titled his message of January 29: “Farmers, we love you”, inviting Christians in particular to use their purchasing power to “support agriculture which more respects people and the nature.”
“Land of hope”
There is a media challenge for these leaders to show human proximity and solidarity at the heart of these contemporary crises. It also plays out on a symbolic level. The image of a priest (in a cassock) blessing the tractors going up to Paris has made the rounds on social networks, recalling other similar actions (not without controversy) during the era of the yellow vests. A strange image from Epinal, therefore, at a time when the gesture of blessing has been controversial in the Church for several weeks, evoking this bygone world where Catholic rites accompanied daily life. Here, we are trying to revive the practice of Rogation processions. Elsewhere, even, we find ritual supplications to ask for rain during severe droughts, as last March in the Var.
But no clear-cut initiative to clearly denounce the real causes of the current suffering of farmers, linked to a contested productivist model. A “techno-economic paradigm” that was explicitly decried in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’ in 2015. And analyzed particularly well by grassroots movements such as that of Christians in Rural World (CMR) in their press release published on February 1 .
The bishops of France prefer to plow the ground by talking about fraternity to live and harmony to come. The rural world thus remains for them first and foremost a “land of hope” to announce and live the Gospel, as proclaimed in the title of the gathering which took place, in April 2022, in a Charity Home in the Drome.