Catholic News Service
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Everyone has a story.
A new pastoral letter emerging from the hollows, farms, mountain communities and urban enclaves of Appalachia is giving everyday people a chance to teach anew their stories in their journey to overcome the social injustice that they find deeply entrenched in the region.
Titled “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us,” the document comes from the Catholic Committee of Appalachia and reflects the dreams, desires and disappointments of Appalachians at a time when the region’s plight is often overlooked.
Organizers describe the document as a “people’s pastoral” that gives voice to those who are rarely heard above deeply partisan political debates.
Michael Iafrate, chair of the committee’s board and the document’s primary author, said the letter showcases the teaching authority — what he called the “magisterium” — of the people.
Iafrate and the others involved in preparing the document over the last three years explained that they moved forward with the project out of a sense of urgency because people felt that the issues they face daily were not being actively or forcefully addressed by the Catholic Church.
“Somebody came up with the term ‘people’s pastoral’ as a symbolic phrase for what we wanted the new pastoral to be. With or without the bishops’ signatures, we pressed on with the pastoral,” Iafrate told Catholic News Service.
“It’s that the authority is coming from elsewhere, that all the people of God need to listen to the voices of people, whether laypeople or clergy or bishops. That’s another kind of authority that we all need to attend to,” he said.
“Also, if the bishops were not really in a place to generate reflection on social justice or to speak out that this would be a way of inviting them to those conversations.”
The issuance of a new document addressing the needs and concerns of a region whose stunning landscapes and rich biodiversity belie the immense social and economic ills confronting so many Appalachians continues a once-every-20-year pattern that began in 1975.
The bishops of Appalachia promulgated “This Land Is Home to Me: A Pastoral Letter on the Poverty and Powerlessness in Appalachia” 40 years ago. That was followed by “At Home in the Web of Life: A Pastoral Message on Sustainable Communities in Appalachia” in 1995. Both pastoral letters challenged local communities and wider society to address poverty, unemployment, environmental exploitation by coal mining and logging firms, substance abuse, the lack of access to health care and the low quality of education that keeps people mired in uncertainty.
“By calling it the people’s pastoral, it had to come from the people because there were the only ones who could illustrate would could be included,” said Sister Jackie Hanrahan, a member of the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame and a consultant on the project.
“It was very important to the people at the Catholic Committee of Appalachia that they wanted every voice possible to be heard, those most at the margins, those who are voiceless and really have no voice,” explained Sister Beth Davies, a member of the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame who served as a consultant to the drafting committee.
The voices included homeless people, Latinos and African-Americans, Christians, non-Christians and people with no religion, coal miners suffering from black lung disease and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“We’re talking to each other. We’re listening. The dialogue piece,” said Sister Jackie, director of the Appalachian Faith and Ecology Center in Norton, Virginia.
Sister Beth and Sister Jackie told CNS the pastoral reflects the call of Pope Francis for members of the Catholic Church to be in touch with people who experience everyday struggles, pains, joys and celebrations.
“The three pastoral letters are so in sync with Pope Francis, when he talks about wisdom coming from listening, listening with the heart. That’s what we’re trying to do here,” said Sister Beth, director of the Addiction Education Center in Pennington Gap, Virginia.
“With this one, people are becoming more engaged because they are really saying, ‘You really want to hear what I’m saying. My story is important,'” she added.
The new document continues the almost poetic narrative style established in the first two pastorals. It urges people to recall the teachings of Jesus and how they apply to today’s social challenges. It cites the words of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II and their call to respond to the needs of forgotten people as well as the importance of protecting the earth.
Sections also call upon individual bishops, priests and others working in the church to follow the lead of Pope Francis by enthusiastically taking up the charge of justice for the poor and marginalized.
With the pastoral published online and hard copies due out Jan. 1, members of the Catholic Committee of Appalachia hope that the document will inspire parishioners, pastors, women religious and bishops to eagerly take up the call for justice.
“It’s to encourage people to see,” Sister Jackie said, “that where the inclusivity of the Gospel is denied in my presence, I will make a response.”
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Editor’s note: “The Telling Takes Us Home: Taking Our Place in the Stories that Shape Us” is available online at www.ccappal.org/thetellingtakesushome2015.pdf. Printed copies can be ordered through the Catholic Committee of Appalachia website, www.ccappal.org.
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Follow Sadowski on Twitter at @DennisSadowski.