INTERVIEWEE: LeRoy Matthiesen
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: October 3, 2002
LOCATION: Amarillo, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Chris Flores and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2210 and 2211
Please note that the video includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Boldfaced numbers mark the time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise, unrelated to the interview.
DT: My name is David Todd. It’s October 3rd, 2002. We’re in Amarillo, Texas at the St. Francis Convent here and wanted to thank Leroy Matthiesen, who’s the Bishop Emeritus of Amarillo, for joining us today to talk about some of his work in the church on behalf of his congregations and also on behalf of non-violence and environmental protection. I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.
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LM: Thank you, David. Good to be with you. I’m very much concerned about what we’re doing to God’s Creation with the wonderful technology that we have that can be used for very peaceful and creative purposes, but we often use them otherwise. That’s the human frailty that we all suffer. And—and therefore it’s important for people to speak out and voice caution in—in—in what we’re doing so that while we move forward with the progress we’ve made, thanks be to God, we’ve made a lot of progress in—in medicine and in like fields, but at the same time, always to be careful that in making that progress, we don’t also endanger the future. We are stewards of God’s Creation, His wonderful Creation, but we’re to be good stewards of that, and to preserve that, make it better, even. We’re co-creators, in that sense, with God. God gave us the elements and we are to leave this in better condition than we found it, as it was given to us by our
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fathers and mothers and we are to pass that on to the next generation and generations to come. I—I’m sure that my boyhood days on a farm in central west Texas, 30 miles northeast of San Angelo, had much to do with the way I think about these issues. I grew up on a cotton farm, there were eight children in our family so ten within the family on a 120-acre farm and we produced almost everything on the farm that we needed, particularly for food. Mom had a wonderful garden, she would—all summer long, we would—in early spring, summer long, we would—into late autumn, we would share that.
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And then she would can other—those vegetables for winter use. We had our own chickens, we had—they produced eggs. We had our own cows, we milked them and—and—and made butter and clabber and all those wonderful kinds of things out of that. We had our own hogs and our own cattle, we had the horses, so that I grew up in that kind of situation where I saw the bounty of God’s Creation and we were able to live a very wonderful life. Looking back on it in hindsight, often wonder what was beyond that farm. Used to read a lot and in time, decided that even though I loved the farm, that I was going to leave that farm, leave it to someone else. In fact, it finally now is in the
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hands of one of my brothers. And—and so he continues to live—live on that family farm. I was born in 1921, so I’m now 81 years of age at this particular taping and I remember during those days, we lived between the Concha and the Colorado Rivers, nine miles from the Concha, nine miles—seven miles from the Concha, nine miles from the Colorado and they came together south of us and formed the Colorado River that flows
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through Austin and on down to the Gulf of Mexico. And we would go swimming and we would go fishing in the Concha River, Concha meaning a shell, it was a clear stream. The Colorado, we did not swim or fish in because it was a red river, colored, Colorado, because the—the river flowed up—up from—through Colorado City and saw it’s beginnings off the cap rock, where—where I live at the present time. And—and so, we were just part of nature and—and we knew that we lived by the seasons of the years. We saw the planting, we saw the growth, we saw the harvesting and we saw the renewal of life. And my dad always cautioned us to—to love nature. He taught us even to love
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snakes. I remember he—he told us about bull snakes, that they’re very gentle creatures, that they protect the environment. Rattlesnakes, be careful of them, the copperheads in the water. So we learned to be cautious, but we also learned to appreciate all of that. We—I remember many an evening, being out on the porch and looking at the stars, watching the falling stars, hearing the bull bats, as we called them in those days, swooping down as they were hunting for insects in the evening, and hearing the cry of the cicadas, we called them hitch criers, I grew up in this German ethnic folk island, and Mom and Dad talked German. We understood it, we didn’t speak it ourselves, and for
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that reason, I began to also develop an appreciation for languages, studied Spanish in school, then went to the seminary and—and studied Greek and—and Hebrew and Latin, of course. And began to realize that there was a much bigger world out there than—than I was experiencing. And I think I was driven to—to try to extend what I had experienced
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to that other world. My primary focus, of course, was in pastoral ministry, ministering to—to our people, our Catholic people, in—in—in parishes later on. But I remember during World War II, we were classified as divinity students, classified as 4D, right next to 4F. But, we—and the government, thank God, allowed us to continue in the ministry while others went off to fight the war. And we went to school in the summertime, and I was ordained in 1946 and came back to Amarillo and experienced a new kind of life here on the high plains of Texas. We’re up on the cap rock; we’re almost four thousand feet
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above sea level, and the skies are so beautiful here, and a writer has described this area as three-quarter sky. And sometimes people will say, my goodness, they drive through here and it’s, of course, a semi-arid region, trees are not native here, so if you want trees, you have to plant them and you have to nurture them. And that became a big part of my life later on, where I grew up here in—in—in Amarillo. And I experienced a—a new beauty, a new kind of fascination, here on the—on the cap rock of Texas. And just love this area as I love the place where I grew up. And I love the time that I was in the seminary in Ohio where there are so many trees and where there’s a lot of snow and there’s cold and ice. My mother came to my ordination at the seminary in 1946 and when we were going
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back home, I said, Mom, how did you like it? And she said, it was wonderful, but you can’t see out. You know, so, she loved the wide-open spaces where you could go on the front porch and see for a mile into the future. Although where I grew up, it was kind of rolling hills but here on the high plains you can certainly do that. It’s like endless
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horizons and for me, this is a freeing experience, that there are all kinds of possibilities out there and you are not hemmed in, you’re not, you know, like in—in a kind of a prison situation. And here we see the beauty of the sky, we see the beauty of the sun and the moon and the stars at night. And—and these are the things that I think we need to preserve and I know that we need to preserve them because God, again, made us stewards of that Creation. Another side of me began to deal with the issue of violence. And it came in a strange kind of way. When I was…
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LM: So, another issue that I became concerned about very early in my life, but didn’t realize it, is the issue of violence that we do to creatures. When I was twelve years of age, I badgered my parents into having Santa Claus bring me a rifle. And they did, or Santa Claus did. It was a Stevens’s single shot rifle, I loved that rifle, I used to clean it every day and all of this sort of thing. And then we would go hunting; we’d go hunting for jackrabbits and that sort of thing. Didn’t think much about killing them because they were pretty pesty. But one day, a—a cat showed up behind our car shed, as we called it. And for some reason or other, I decided to kill it. And so, I shot it, and the cat just jumped as the—as—as the—as the shot rang out. And the bullet entered his shoulder and I remember so clearly that the cat screamed, and like fire was coming out of the cat’s eyes. And that really shook me up. And then later, I went deer hunting and—with some
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of my brothers, and they gave me a rifle with a telescope and they told me, now, you sit in this place and deer will come by. So sure enough, some deer came by. Well, I looked through that herd of sheep and looked at one particular one that was standing very still and it seemed very large to me. And I shot it, and when I went up to see it, it wasn’t little more than a fawn. And, if you’ve seen a fawn, you know you feel like, oh, what have I done. That was the last time I ever used a—used a gun. I decided, no, I’m not going to go that way. And my father told me a story that—told us a story when he gave us the guns. He said, be careful. And he told us a story about a time when he was working in
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the Rio Grande valley as a engineer on a cotton gin. There was a drought up in our area so he went down there with some others to work there. He said he was standing in the gin yard one day with a Texas Ranger, and a wetback came across the river and was approaching them. And I—the way he told the story, apparently this Mojado, the wetback, saw the Texas Ranger and panicked, and turned around and started running and my dad said the ranger took out his gun and shot the Mexican in the back. And my brother—I mean, my father, after that, did not have—of course, this is anecdotal, but
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after that, he didn’t like the Texas Rangers very much, although they’re considered to be heroes. They do wonderful work in the—in—in the state, but that had an impact on me. And I guess there was the beginning of taking a position for environmental protection and non-violence. And those two things come together. That—so we went to the seminary and began to study the Bible, more than we did in elementary school, then read, of
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course, with new eyes, the story of Creation as it is taught in the first narrative of the—of the Creation story about how God created the world. He created the sun, the moon, the stars; he created light, he—and all of this. And created the fish and the birds and the animals, and finally, human beings. And in each instant, he said, after the Creation, for example, of the fish, he said, and that’s good. And the Creation of animals, that’s good. And then, when he created the first human beings, he said, that’s very good and but then, things became apart after that. And then he turned that over to us and when he told Adam you can name the animals, and naming something means to have possession of it
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in the Scriptural terms. So, I began to again—to wonder about this, and then I be—when I came here to—as a priest then to the diocese of Amarillo in 1946 and thereafter, I was just marginally interested in—in environmental issues and issues of violence because I was involved in all kinds of other things. But, then I was—I was pastor of St. Francis of Assisi church, which is just east of Amarillo. And within the territorial limits of St. Francis Parish, Pantex is situated, Pantex, the final assembly point for all the nuclear warheads produced in the United States, and now disassembly. And people would come to me and ask me whether I thought it was all right for them, morally, to work at this
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atomic energy assembly plant. And I said, well, you’ll go have to ask the bishop about that. You know, I had my own convictions about it, but I didn’t think it was my place, at that point, to say, that’s a problem, that’s a moral problem. Because what they were doing was assembling weapons of mass destruction, weapons that killed indiscriminately,
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weapons that just blow out the environment, destroy everything in their path. And, of course, you know, I was happy when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because I had a brother in the military and I—he was in Germany but certainly would’ve been ordered to go into Japan. But I reasoned that out by saying, you know, that, yeah, we have a right to defend ourselves, but not by killing innocent people because that—that atomic bomb—the nuclear—the hydrogen bomb, particularly, will wipe out everything, including grandma and grandpa and children, babies in the womb, all of that, who
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certainly have to be innocent. And we can’t kill people like that just to defend ourselves and our way of life. I’m not going to second-guess what happened on or make any judgments about that, but that concerned me. Then when I became bishop, the question was put directly to me by a—a—a—a nun who was very famous in this area, Sister Regina Foppe, a missionary catechist, who was a burr under the saddle of a lot of city fathers and mothers and challenged me to make a statement about the nuclear bomb. I finally did in 1981 when the so-called neutron bomb was being assembled. That had been developed under the Carter administration and then was developed—was put
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together then under the Reagan administration. I issued a statement then that, in my judgment, that the use of that weapon and, even the possession of it, was an immoral action. Of course, that brought all kinds of discussion and controversy and Amarillo got on the map in a big time way because apparently people hadn’t known—I had not known what was actually going on at Pantex, that that was the final assembly point for all these
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nuclear weapons. And so it seemed to me like the whole world came here, ABC, NBC, CBS, BBC, Japanese television, German television, that sort of thing and it was a very controversial situation and many of the people here had a difficult time with that because they worked at the place. And I—they would ask me about it and I said, well, this is what I believe, and—but you have to make up your own judgment because the final arbiter of what we do, whether it’s right or wrong, is our internal—is our conscience. There we meet God in the inner sanctum and, yes, you must pay attention, you must seriously study the teachings of the Bible, the teaching of the church and then you decide
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what—what you’re going to do. Well, the whole country became involved in this, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and in 1983 we issued a pastoral letter called The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response. In there, the—the—the use of nuclear weapons was condemned, the possession of nuclear weapons as a deterrent, this was the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. The judgment was issued by the Secretary of State of—of the Vatican and it was also the judgment of the conference that given the circumstances in
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which we were at that time, it could still be morally acceptable to possess them as a deterrent, but only as a deterrent, and that they would then have to be dismantled once the—there was no need for deterrents. So that has been gone, you know, the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War is over and so the process of dismantling them has begun, it is being done here at Pantex. However, in the light of the
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difficulties in the Middle East, particularly with Iraq, there is now a project to start reassembling them. In fact, they have been keeping a number of those active as a deterrent. We are the one superpower in the world, and it seems to me that our moral responsibility is to lead toward peace rather than to war, and I’m very much concerned about what’s happening at the present time. And—and of course, our conference and then—and Rome has spoken out against attacking Iraq, you know, unilaterally, particularly. We have always, in the just war theory and thinking and teaching, have always said war can be justified, but only as a defensive way—project, but not an
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offensive one. And then it’s limited when you—once you get involved in it. So that’s—and then aside—along with that, in the early 1980’s, I also then resumed interest in environmental projects and that came about through two of our priests, particularly one, Father Darryl Birkenfeld, and another priest, Father Jerry Stein, who approached me and suggested a new vision for this area of the Texas Panhandle. This area has—well, Amarillo seems to be doing quite well economically and otherwise, from most of the arts and all of that. Has a big medical center here. At the same time, the little towns in the
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Texas Panhandle are drying up; I think that process has maybe, almost stopped. But the—the little towns have lost a lot. So Birkenfeld and Stein approached me with a project of reviving those small communities through sustainable agriculture, you know, this has gone now into big agribusiness up here with huge, huge expenses for the equipment and all of that. And so, and I—I—I endorsed that and we formed then, there
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is a National Catholic Rural Life conference that’s based in Iowa, I believe, in Des Moines that has been on this for a long, long time. So we developed a Diocese in Catholic Rural Life conference and we would bring the farmers, the big producers, and the workers together, we had a lot of migrant workers up here at the time; they were constantly calling strikes, which we said, that’s not the answer. You know, we’ve got to come together. So, we did. And then we would have, well, we developed—we took on some patron saints, St. Isidore and St. Isaac. Isidore and—not Isaac, Maria was her
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name. St. Isidore and Maria, and they were born in Spain and they were farmers and they’re kind of our patron saints now. And so we would go around the diocese in the spring of the year and have rural life days, and bring farmers and producers together again, to make farmers proud again of what they’re doing, but not to give—not to overreach themselves. You know, again, this is a semi-arid region and I always get a little bit amused when we’re always asked to pray for rain. And I say, what you’re asking God to do is change his order of Creation, you know, he made this a semi-arid region, so we need to live in that—in that kind of atmo—atmosphere. Don’t try to
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squeeze out of the land more than what God has put there for us to live on. And—and so we then, after that, Fat—Darryl Birkenfeld and Jerry Stein developed a Promised Land Network and began to have annual urban rural conferences in January, quite successful. Darryl had a master’s degree, achieved a master’s degree in—at the American College in Louvain, in Belgium, on this issue of environmental preservation and then later achieved
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a doctorate in moral theology, but with an emphasis on sustainable agriculture, organic farming, family farms, that kind of thing. And getting away from the use of pesticides and herbicides and all these kinds of chemicals that indeed do produce—do bring about a higher level of production but at the same time we seem to be poisoning ourselves. You know, this—perhaps we’re more knowledgeable now about the instances of cancer, and probably it was always there, but it seems to me that—and I have not seen any research on it, but the rate of cancer seems to be very, very high and perhaps, we’re in a sense kind of poisoning ourselves with the foods that are, you know, sprayed with fertilizer, or
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fertilized first, and then sprayed with chemicals and then—with pesticides and herbicides and all of this kind of thing. I have a brother involved in this, in a wholesale business, and he’s beginning to see that himself, so that he’s doing a mix of using chemicals and using, oh, insects and—and—and mixing them. So there’s progress being made and I’m very hopeful about this for the future. I guess, in terms of the—the violence, all of this in my background, of course, is in the Scriptures and the teachings of our church. I was reading Psalm 33 one day, praying it, and it was all about the use of military force, and
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the psalmist in Psalm 33 says a vain hope for safety is the horse, meaning the military horse, despite his power, he cannot save. And I was—as I was praying that, all of sudden I was saying, a vain hope for safety is the nuclear bomb, despite his power, he cannot save. And I thought, hmm, well, maybe that’s a word that was put there, in my mouth, by God himself, maybe that was a little bit simplistic, but it did strike me. And in the same
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way, I go back to the—the charge and the responsibility that we were given by the creator to take possession of the Earth, use it, but not overuse it, maintain it, make it better, so that it can be passed onto the next generation. What I’m afraid about, in terms of all these chemicals and pesticides and herbicides and—and nuclear energy and so on, is that those can be not what God wanted, that is, that we would be a blessing to the second, third, and fourth generation, that these might be a curse instead and we need to take a serious look at that. Water is a big issue in Texas, as we know. Pure water, up here in the Panhandle, it’s a big issue. And now water is being used in the same way as oil is
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being used, as a commodity, for sale. And we have a problem up here where a business wants to buy the water, has apparently been given rights to do that, and—and to ship the water down to San Antonio and Houston and places like that, where we say, well, they have floods down there, we don’t have floods up here except occasionally when we have a torrent. So, that issue, and the issue of erosion of the soil where we try to force it to do more than it’s intended to do.
DT: You mentioned erosion of the soil, I was curious, growing up in the Panhandle, if you witnessed the Dust Bowl.
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LM: I did not, I did not. Those came in the early 30’s, the Dust Bowl days, but we have pictures of them, of course, and even some—some, I want to say video, but it wasn’t video camera, took pictures of that, and descriptions of how that was. We didn’t experience that down where I grew up, although we saw some of the—you know, the sky would be very—how do you describe that—very, well, you could see the dust, you could see the—the dirt. But up here, it was terrible. Now they—what happened was that after the—the Apaches and the Comanches and the Kiowas were driven off the land and all the buffalo were slaughtered, then the ranchers came in, but after that, came the farmers. And the farmers, bless them, did what farmers do. They dug up the land, and they sowed
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it, but they didn’t know how to control the—the blowing wind, which is a constant up here. But in time, they did learn to control it by just a quick tilling of the soil. Up in this area, we don’t experience that very much, they still experience it in the south plains, in the Lubbock and the Lamesa areas very much because that’s sandier soil, blows easily. Strange phenomenon is it can rain and then a couple of hours later, it can be blowing off the top of that, kind of, you know, the—the—the water, the rain soaks through very quickly and then it dries on the top and then it blows. So the farmers get out with their tilling machine and till it—bring up a little moist earth and—and that has stopped the
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erosion. They have also learned not to dig up everything, you know, for a while there there was this no holds barred, you know, plant from fence to fence, at a time when I guess there was a need for more production of grains and fiber, but now we’re learning not to do that. We have the Soil Conservation Project which so many of the farmers going into. One of the great losses we have up here is the loss of wildlife. We still have
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pheasants, we still have quail, we still have some deer, but not in the numbers we had before. But they are beginning to return and, of course, what happened to them was the loss of food, and of course, also the poisons, the pesticides. And—and so there’s a lot work be done—to be done, there’s a group called Quail Unlimited, for example, which is trying to bring the quail population back to where it was. They, I guess, do it for hunting purposes, but I would see it as restoring the balance in nature. I know there are extremists in this area of life, there’s this group called PETA, People for the Equal Treatment of Animals. Well, I’m sorry, you know, we should treat animals—we should
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not be—we should treat them gently, we should not be cruel to them, I respect that very much. But animals are not equal to human beings. They—they have a certain amount of intelligence, but they’re not rational beings in the way that we are. But our responsibility is to—to take care of them and to use them only as we need to do that. So you have these movements going on now, and I’m very grateful that the—your organization, or the one you’re doing this for, is—is engaged in this work. There’s a lot of education that needs to be done. And this is what the Promised Land Network is about. It is about educating people into what’s really important in our lives, and that is that we just simply sustain
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our land, we sustain our families, but we don’t make the almighty dollar our Gods. That’s a real problem in our society today.
DT: Can you explain that?
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LM: Well, I think we get—you know—you—you—it’s like when you grow something in a field, well, you’re thrilled when the seed comes up and you—you see the plant growing whether that’s cotton or corn or tomatoes or whatever it might be. And it produces more and we have some wealth. And we should—we have the wealth in the form of edible food, which we then share with others, particularly we should share that with the poor of the world. Well, now, the emphasis and the focus seems to be on growing money, you know, as if that’s something that you can eat and—and—and you can wear. You can’t. Now it can buy those things, but then you see around us, you know, we talk about societal differences like in Mexico, where you have, you know,
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supposedly you have the wealthy and you have the poor. There’s a middle group developing in Mexico at the present time. But in many countries of the world you have—take Saudi Arabia, I haven’t been there, but you see, you know, the wealthy—very, very wealthy people there, and you see the poverty. And—and we see it nowadays, of course, through the medium of—of electronic communication, of movies, documentaries and all of that. So, it seems to me what happens is we get fascinated—it’s
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the story that Jesus tells about this farmer who filled his barn up and then he had more produce, so he built another barn, and then he built another barn. And in the story that Jesus told, God says, you fool. Tonight you’re going to die. What are you going to do with all those barns? And it seems to me this is the problem with our economy at the present time, it’s—it’s what makes money that is important, and so we grow money and
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we pocket that money, we put it into our barns, into our banks, or into the stock market and then we get nervous about the stock market going up and down and all this kind of thing. We need to get back to a common sense way of life, and the environment is absolutely crucial to it. You won’t grow any money, you won’t grow anything else if we destroy the land and the air and the water. Those are elements that are absolutely essential, and we can’t live without them.
DT: Can we go back to some of your religious education and some of the teachings, in particular, of St. Francis? Can you discuss some of your feelings?
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LM: Yes, I encountered St. Francis, well, when I became pastor of St. Francis Church and have developed a great love and respect for him. Francis was born toward the end of the 11th century—th—the 12th century—the later 11th—toward the end of the—end of late Antiquity and he didn’t know it at the time, that he—going into the 13th century, he died about the year 1250, as I remember. Did a revolutionary thing, he was the son of a wealthy tailor named Bernardino and he was being groomed, life was wonderful, he was being groomed to take over his father’s business. Life was all about parties; he was a great partier with his friends. And then, in those days, they—they got greedy, and they tried to take things away from neighboring towns, there was not a nation at that point, they were little city-states, so he joined the army and went and they attacked Perugia, which was only about thirty miles away. Been there and seen that, wonderful places.
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And he got wounded badly and wound up in—in prison, wounded, and began—and—and he, oh, he loved to read love stories, you know, pulp stuff, but there wasn’t anything available and they gave him a Bible to read and lives of the saints. And he began to read those and that was a whole new life for him, a new understanding. Then he—then he actually went into the Scriptures and there he began to read what Jesus was advising and that is, live very simply. And so, he decided, and this is typical of Francis, he did everything full steam ahead. So when he read that, he told his father he was going to give up everything, he wasn’t going to study to be—to take over the business, his father got
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angry, and in those days, the church held courts and so they brought—and the bishop was the judge. And so, Francis’ father brings him to court, sues him, to give up this wild idea of being a—he was later called El Pobrero—pobrero, the little poor one. He took off all his clothes and everything and put on, you know, a simple little robe called a habit, and—I mean, that’s what he wanted to do, but his father would not allow him. So his father took him to court and wanted the court—the bishop to force him to do what his father intended him to do. Well, in front of the court, what does Francis do? He takes all of his clothes off, strips himself naked and, of course, the bishop is in shock. So the bishop
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comes down and takes off his robe and puts it around him, but Francis doesn’t change his mind. And he began—and then he begins to attract those young bucks who were him on this partying business. They join him. They finally wind up to be twelve and they live as hermits, they live very simply. They work, but they work just enough to buy food for the
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next day. Then they would hire out to somebody else and buy a little bit more food, that’s how they were living, it’s very idealistic and, in a sense, very idyllic. But Francis read that story about the Creation of the world and he reasoned that we are all part of that Creation, we are part of the birds, the bees, we’re part of all of that. The sun, which gives us warmth and light, the moon, which reflects that, the water, which is pure, which we drink and—and the food that we eat, and all of that. So he began to see himself as just being at that level and for that reason he would actually speak to the birds and the fish and you have wonderful paintings of him where the birds are—I mean, birds are there
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listening to him. That was by Giotto, I believe, one of the Italian artists. And—and he began to attract these people, he went to Rome, finally, to get the Pope’s blessing and people began to—because he came there with eleven other guys, so there were twelve of them. So people began to say, oh, this—no, I’m sorry, there was Francis, himself and twelve, so there were thirteen altogether. They began to talk about Francis as a reincarnation of Jesus Christ. And those twelve being the twelve disciples, the twelve apostles. And the thing just grew like wildfire. And he’s become the patron saint of—in our tradition, of environmental safety and environmental protection because he developed
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that great. He wrote this wonderful poem called the Canticle of Creation. I’d just to like to just share a little bit of that with you. He says, “All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made. All praise and first, my Lord, Brother Sun, who brings the day and light that you give to us through him. How beautiful he is, how radiant in all his
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splendor. Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness. All praise be yours, My Lord, through your sister moon and stars. In the heavens, you have made them bright and precious and fair. All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air. And he goes on like that, all praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water, so useful, lovely, precious and pure. All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire through whom you brighten up the night. All praise be yours through Sister Earth, our mother, who feeds us in her sovereignty, and produces various fruits, with colored flowers and herbs.
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All praise”—and he goes on like that and—and so he sees them—and—and he sees himself as just being part of all of God’s Creation. And therefore, he has tremendous respect for the earth, the sky, the water, the moon. He even respects what he calls Sister Death, because he sees it only as a transition to another life, a higher and more beautiful life than he’s enjoying at the present time. Scripture—not scripture scholars, but the scholars who have studied Francis’ life now give him a tribute for making a major change in the culture of that time. He was born in the late period of Antiquity, at the beginning of the medieval period, which in the thirteenth century saw a great flourishing of poetry and of art. Francis himself was a poet and he would often recite poems to the animals.
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He went to, for example, to attacks of Gubbio, where there was a wild wolf that was attacking people and eating little children. So he went there and he talked to the wolf and he said, you know, what you’re doing is bad. You need to change your ways so that people won’t be afraid of you anymore. So the wolf becomes gentle and there’s a painting of the wolf
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being petted by little children. And that’s the kind of person he was. And—and so, poets began to flourish. Jacopone da Todi was one of those and another one that is very famous, of course, is Dante, with his divine comedy, who has a whole set of stanzas about Francis and his love for Creation. And then you have—the artists began to look at Creation, at trees, at water, at lakes, at ponds, at birds, in—in different kinds of ways and began to paint them and—and they say, that was the beginning of a great flourishing of poetry and art, and they attribute that to Francis. Francis died a, of course, a very poor man. He always—as happens, and this—his fraternity grew, and then it even invited a—
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a woman who wanted to join that kind of life and her name was Claire. And she formed the Sisters of—which became known as the Sisters of St. Claire. Right here in Amarillo, we have the Madres Clarissa’s Cappucinas, the—the Capperson sisters of St. Claire, who follow her. And I understand there are about 7000 men and women who live the rule of St. Francis in religious life, but beyond that, there is just hundreds of thousands of people who—who respect Francis, in their own way try to imitate his life, and certainly have a great affection for him. You’ll see statues of Francis just all over the place. You’ll see
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these paintings of Francis preaching to the birds and they’re paying attention to him and there’s this other wonderful painting of fish in the water coming up to the bank and listening to him as he’s preaching. Something that sometimes when we preach, we don’t get the same kind of attraction, or we don’t attract them in the same kind of way. So that’s Francis. He—he taught people that happiness and peace is not going to be found in
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possessions of things, at least, overabundance of possessions. But that if you can divest yourself of that, not depend of them, yes, I mean, we know we have to have those things for sustenance, but don’t overdo it, don’t fill barn after barn after barn with your possessions. Don’t—in modern terms; don’t build all kinds of places to house all your cars and that sort of thing. What are you going to do with them? You can’t take them with you. Don’t do like one man up here in the Panhandle did, had himself buried in his Cadillac, you know, sitting in the front seat. You know, obviously that was the source of his satisfaction. Can’t judge him, God will have to judge a person like that. But Francis,
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reflecting on what St. Augustine said about sin—Augustine said that sin is breaking your relationship with God, and how you do that—and with your neighbor and with yourself—by looking for happiness and security in the wrong places. Look for it in the right places and Francis’ whole thesis was you will find that in the na—in the beauty of nature, sacraments of encounters with God, visible things. So appreciate the environment, respect the environment, keep the soil the way God made it, the air, the water, keep that as pure as you can and you will be a happier person for it.
DT: Can we talk about another mentor? I understand that Jonathan Shell…
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LM: Jonathan Shell.
DT: Fate of the Earth is somebody you mi…
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LM: Well, yes, Jonathan Shell, well, very early on, when the controversy of the use and possession of nuclear weapons was so strident, someone sent me a copy of Jonathan Shell’s book, The Fate of the Earth. And he paints a very dreadful scenario and at the end of it, just says, we’ve got to come back, and he quotes, who was the, oh Einstein, Albert Einstein, of course, is the one who developed the theory of relativity and that’s how the—and that’s a very important issue and it ties in with what we’ve been talking about in terms of the environment. Einstein said that, you know, energy is MC2, and that matter is not inert, matter is made of—matter is alive. So the chairs we’re sitting on are not just inert, they are held together in tension, whirling around the atoms, whirling
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around and held in tension. He said, if—if you had eyes strong enough, you could look down through all of this and see the soles of the Chinese—the feet of the Chinese, that everything is held in tension. Once you break that tension, then you are going to release powerful energy. And you were able to do that with the cracking of the atom, the splitting of the atom and look at that. I mean, those pits that are the core of the—of the atomic, the hydrogen bombs, the nuclear bombs is only about the size of a—a little bigger than a softball. And look at the amount of energy that that re—releases. You know, and Shell points out in his book that when they were doing underwater testing and above water testing, for example, in the Pacific, they put a hydrogen bomb on an island
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which was a couple of miles long and—and a mile or so wide, and then they pulled back from that and they set that bomb off and the island simply disappeared. I mean, so powerful is that. And I’ve always maintained that if—if the atom created by God is so powerful, then we should not split it for destructive purposes, but if we’re going to split it, for peaceful purposes. And of course they’ve been trying to do that ever since. In the beginning, you know, we thought that the atom would be, you know, there was a, you know, this project, Atoms for Peace, where the atomic energy could be used to do all kinds of things. That was unlimited energy, cheap energy, there was even talk about
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digging a canal from the Missouri River down to the Texas Panhandle, there was talk—with atomic bombs going off. There was even talk about—when the controversy was about the possession of the Panama Canal and it was deeded over to Mex—to Panama, there was talk. No big deal, we’ll just dig another one, you know, with the use of atomic explosions. Thank God we didn’t do any of that, we would’ve radiated both oceans. And we would’ve radiated the Texas Panhandle. Remember the days, or maybe you don’t remember that, when outside drugstores and stuff, there would be these little weight
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machines and you could step on that and there was—you could see your bones? It was radiation; you know, radium through there. We didn’t realize we were poisoning ourselves, radiating ourselves, but of course, it was not—not a big enough le—level, I think, to do any real serious damage. But there was that euphoria about it. You know, we believe, as a Christian, as a Catholic, I believe in the triune God, three persons in one
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God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. Big mystery, but it seems to me that that’s the power of God. That God is in rel—is in a relationship of love with the three persons and that God’s love overflowed into Creation and—and if you use that relative energy in that kind of way, then that can be very powerful. Even more powerful than using it for destructive purposes in the splitting of the atom. Pax Christi International, which is a peace movement, says that peace begins, or violence ends where peace begins. Pope Paul VI said that if you want peace, work for justice, meaning righteousness, meaning working in relationship with God and with each other and with yourself. John Paul II added, I think,
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which is very crucial, he said, if there will be no peace without justice, meaning right relationships, and there’ll be no justice without forgiveness, somebody has to step out of that cycle and say, you hurt me badly, I can’t forget that, but I will forgive you. And we’ve got instances of people doing that, for example, a—a man whose daughter was killed in the bombing of the Federal Murray Building in Oklahoma City came to Amarillo couple of years ago, and he may still be doing it, he’s going around—his name is Bob—Bud Welch. Said I—I am preaching—I forgive the man, or the two men, who
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did—who killed my daughter. And people say, how can you do that? And he said, well, if I don’t, then I’m trapped in my own prison of hatred for the rest of my life, and I can’t live that way. There’s also a Jewish rabbi whose parents were gassed in Auschwitz. And he had been going around doing the same thing. And they said, how can you do that? How can you forgive the Nazis for gassing or shooting or however they killed them in
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Auschwitz? And he said, if I don’t, if I keep hating them as I did, can’t forget it, but I have to forgive them because if I don’t, I’m in the concentration camp for the rest of my life. Now that’s a hard thing to do, but that was the teaching of Jesus, love your enemies. You know, (?) said to you, hate your enemies, love your friends. But I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, that’s the only way to break out of the violence. And the same thing, I think, has to do with the environmental issue. Somebody has to break out of this cycle of bigger and bigger and bigger. Concentrations, mergers, agribusiness, all of that which is forcing the family farms out of that style of life.
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Somebody has to do that and it will be projects like you’re engaged in. It’ll be the work of the Promised Land Network. Somebody will step out of that and Birkenfeld has brothers whom he finally persuaded to go into the composting business to get away from artificial fertilizers and go into natural fertilizers. They were using the—the manure from the feedlots here in this Texas Panhandle and composting that, I saw that operation. And then they were selling it in bulk. He was not too successful because the—it was a bit more expensive and the farmers couldn’t afford it because they work on a small margin.
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And somebody advised him to go to the—to market their product in the—in—in the shops that have garden supplies and that sort of thing. So they’re bagging that now and they’re so successful with that that they bought out a composting company east of Lubbock which was called Back to Earth which was using cotton hulls to do the same thing. They have merged, talking about mergers, but this is for a good purpose. They—
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they—they now use both the manure and the cotton hulls, both of which are plentiful, the cotton hulls around Lubbock and the manure up here in this part of the country, and they are now selling that. They call it Mending Earth, mending the earth through the use of this natural compost. Wonderful stuff, and one day, maybe, we can finally get to that on a big scale. And, I hope you make that part of your project when you talk to—to Birkenfeld and those others—his brothers. At first they just couldn’t buy into it because they said, well, if you’ll pay all my debts that I have on this big machinery, I’ll do this. Well, eventually, they—they worked toward it and are into it now. Using big machinery,
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these big compost machines, but for useful purposes, just like we should convert our bomb factories into factories that produce good machinery. Tractors, harvesters, combines, all this sort of thing.
DT: We’ve talked some about the efforts of the Birkenfeld brothers to educate one another. I’m wondering if you could discuss some of your own efforts through your role with Catholic schools that I understand you were administrating.
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DT: To teach young children and perhaps if there is a way to pass on some of the understandings that you’ve gained about non-violence and about environmental protection to the next generation.
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LM: Well, I was engaged in—in schoolwork in that I was princ—principal of our Catholic high school for about ten years. We did some of that, I must say, not enough, you know, intentionally along that line. We did encourage them to—to have their own little gardens and things of that sort, you know, but nothing in—in any kind of a meaningful way. There is one project that I personally got involved in and that’s the planting of trees. We developed a retreat center. I live on the grounds of that now and again, when that—and there’s about 40 acres of land, and there wasn’t a tree on it. And so after we created the retreat center, we needed to create an environment around it that
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would be conducive to peace, quiet, meditation, reflection, that sort of thing. So went to, either the soil, well, the county, what do you call it, you know, the agriculture people, the county—agent, the county agent. And learned about that you could get seedlings for about 20 cents each, something like that, for windbreak purposes, and we obviously needed that here. So I was able to do that. And with the help of some friends, and sometimes with some of the maintenance staff here, we planted about a thousand trees around here. And I’ve always heard, and I think it’s true, that of course trees produce oxygen, oxygen then attracts moisture and, if we can get that cycle started, we may turn this from a semi-arid region into a very, you know, productive kind of—of—of—of region. And people of course saw that and they, you know, they joined in doing that. And then in Amarillo in 1988 there was a centennial year of the founding of Amarillo.
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There was a project of planting trees all over the city. They got a tree out of Oklahoma called euonymus tree, or sometimes called the Pink Lady. It produces the little seeds that birds can eat and it’s a lovely little tree. Slow growing, some people got a little bit frustrated by that but, of course, trees that are slow growing produce hard wood and they tend to live 50 to 100 years whereas, you know, soft trees like the cottonwoods and so on, they only live for about 20 years. They grow very rapidly, they’re very nice and we planted a lot of those along with Russian olives and locusts and hackberry, trees like that. And that also attracted the quail that we had around here for quite a while. And they’re coming back now. And attract, of course, birds galore and they now stay here year-round
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whereas before we never saw—never saw any birds. So that’s the kind of things that can be done if only we become intentional about it. Other priests joined into this and this one pastor, in particular, every year there was a class of—of—of kids who were confirmed and so they would plant a tree. And the idea was that as long as you nurture that tree and take care of it and so on, then it will grow. Just like if you will nurture yourself spiritually, you will also grow. It’s a very interesting project and—and that was educational for the little kids. And of course, this—this project that I’ve talked to you
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about before, the Diocese and Catholic Rural Life Conference and the Promised Land Network got a lot of publicity and attracted people. Sometimes we get frustrated that there wasn’t a bigger response, but this is, you know, we become so accustomed to doing things the way we did them before that we are loathe to change. I would say the last
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words of a tradition-bound person is we never did it that way before. Or, another thing is to say, give me that old time religion, it was good enough for Daddy, it’s good enough for me. And we have to think in new ways. Christ talked about this in terms of, it’s the wise steward who takes out of his storehouse both the old and the new. Don’t destroy the old, that’s valuable, don’t take down a wall, as a friend of mine once said, in a house until you find out why it was put there in the first place. So those kind of values have to be kept, but also be open to new possibilities. That is what I think it means to be a good steward.
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And there I think we are time sinning because we just run with it and—and again, driven by the money. This will make money, this won’t make money. We ought to look at that in a different kind of way, what is good for us, what is good for other people, what can we produce that will be helpful to other people and not just make money for me.
DT: Is it…
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LM: So, David, you were going to ask me a—about—what was it we were going to talk about?
DT: Change coming to…
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LM: Oh, yeah, change.
DT: I’d like you to talk a little bit about how you’ve dealt with both change and continuity in the church and how you’ve both comforted those who felt security in the traditions but also give some support for those who want to embrace new understandings of maybe better ways to do things.
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LM: There is a saying which we use in the church and that is, the role of a prophet, prophet meaning a teacher, not somebody who sees the future but a prophet who can read the signs of the times and says, if you continue this way, this is what’s going to happen. That’s been the typical role of a prophet. And so there’s this saying that the role of a teacher, and the church is a teacher, I’ve been a teacher all my life, professionally and otherwise. And there’s a saying that the role of a teacher or particularly a prophet, is to afflict the comfortable. And that, of course, irritates the comfortable but also then, to comfort the afflicted. So plays a dual role of questioning what’s going on and then dealing with that reality. That, of course, came very much to the front here because of—of the assembly plant at Pantex assembling nuclear weapons. Many of the Catholic
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people here in Amarillo worked there, and of course, considered what they were doing was making a big contribution to the defense of the country; this was a high act of patriotism. They were always encouraged to—to do that work because it was to be patriotic. Therefore, it seems to be heresy to say that what you’re doing is not right, challenging that. And, it was interesting to me what happened though when this became a—a national debate that—and—and when I made a public statement questioning the morality of working on the assembly of this so-called neutron bomb, and in fact, of all the atomic weapons. I received about 600 letters, interestingly enough, about 95% were
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supportive. The others were, of course, totally unsupportive. I remember, I had been pastor of St. Francis parish and when this statement came out, one of the parishioners who was a good friend of mine went to see his brother and he said, I wonder what in the world the bishop thinks he’s doing. And so his brother said, well, he said, I’m going to go up there right now and tell him that. And his brother said, well, you better be a little bit careful, maybe he knows something that you don’t know, something like that. In fact, I didn’t know a great deal about how the nuclear bomb was built or know that—but I
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learned in a hurry. I used to tell my story in terms of, I didn’t know the gun was loaded and I talked about my boyhood experience with guns, killing the cat, killing the deer. But I also had some near encounters with almost killing some friends of mine, or at least one friend. We were riding in a pickup and I was in the middle, there were three of us in the cab and I had my rifle on my lap, and for some reason—reason or other, I had not
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unloaded it, it discharged. And that bullet went within about an inch of my cousin’s head. And that got my attention. And then when I was principal of our high school, one of the students had brought a pistol, one of these Saturday Night Specials, had it under the seat of his car out on the parking lot. And after school was showing it to some of his friends, and, well, I said in the cab, I didn’t know the gun was loaded. And—and—and this gun that this kid had went off and it struck one of the students across the parking lot in the neck and severed his spinal cord. And they called me right away and I went out
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and he was lying on the ground. He’s still alive, but he’s paralyzed. And, you know, I said, of course, what happened? And this boy who had the gun said, I didn’t know it was loaded. And that was the theme I used in the talks that I gave around the country. I did not know that the nuclear gun was loaded, but now I know. And—and I’m saying, you know, we need to be very, very cautious about how we use this weapon, and we’ve already used it, praise God we won’t use it again. That presentation with just my personal story was apparently pretty powerful. Later on, after I studied and learned all about the mechanisms, I gave a talk down to the engineering students at the University of
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Texas at San Antonio and it was a total disaster because they challenged everything I said, they were engineers, they were stu—and later on, a friend of mine said, they got you on their ball field instead of the one you were playing on and you better go back to your personal story, which I did after that. So, you know, everybody has to do this. You have to tell your personal story, that’s the most powerful thing and—and, you know, I would
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think in something in terms of the environment and so on, this is what we have to do. This is what happened. So how do you change things? First of all, you have to determine whether or not they need to be changed. I thought, in terms of the atomic thing, I thought and still think, and do, in both, that you—overuse of pesticides and herbicides is going in the wrong way. And somebody needs to challenge that and come up with a better idea. In terms of the nuclear weapon, I used to be challenged with, but we have to have this to defeat Communism. And my response was, Communism is an
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ideology. It’s a way of thinking about the world. It does not include God. It is—it’s an economic policy, it’s a social policy, it’s the haves and the have-nots, and the only way you can defeat that is with a better idea. And we do have one, it’s called Christianity. Problem with that is, G. K. Chesterton said, I believe it was G. K. Chesterton said, the problem is not Christianity, the problem is that Christianity has not been tried meaningfully. And that would be my message that we need to assess what we’re doing, look back to what we have done before, keep those things that were good and, obviously, the backbone of this country. It will never be that way again, it doesn’t need to be that
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way again, where almost every family was a farm family, was a rural country, but it’s not that anymore, it’s an urban country and it will always be as the population continues to grow. Which brings up another problem, but keep the things that are so meaningful, remember your history, remember your story, remember what your grandparents and your great-grandparents did, and keep those values, those values of respect and honesty
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and responsibility, the work ethic, all of that. Keep that, but look at ways in which you can do that in new ways with modern technology. I’m all for modern tech—technology, I wouldn’t be here today if it were not for medical technology. Had heart valve replaced and I was told fifteen years before that happened that they would not have been able to—to identify the bacterium that was destroying my mitral valve. And if they had been able to detect it, they would not have been able to eliminate it, kill it, and if they could have even done that, they couldn’t have replaced the valve, you’d be pushing up lilies in Llano
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Cemetery in Amarillo. So I said, I’ll never complain about the cost of modern technology, although I think there’s areas where that can be done, I think that’s also suffering from, again, the bottom line, the dollar. That you have, you know, health management organizations, you have preferred providers and doctors have now come under the direction of the insurance companies and they really ought to be released and freed to do what they’ve always done so well and that is to—to deal with the patient in the best way that that doctor knows how to do it. So many doctors are frustrated today because they cannot do what they want to do. The insurance company dictates how long
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they can put a patient in a hospital, and cut a chart. And all that sort of thing, that’s part of our problem today, modern medicine is just wonderful but again, it has to be done rationally with common sense.
DT: You’ve mentioned two things just now that I think are intriguing regarding health care and what the bounds of medicine might be and population. The church has often been torn by the whole issue of contraception and…
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DT: And abortion.
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DT: And yet, you’ve recognized that there are problems with the growing population and the stresses that it puts on the environment. How do you balance those two?
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LM: Well, I think it’s demonstrable that where you have an educated people, where you have a people that live good lives, I mean, in every aspect, that they have enough of this earth’s goods to live with dignity and even, you know, beyond that because there’s also the promotion of arts and science and all of that that needs to be done. Once you have that, then I think it’s demonstrable that the population growth begins to slow down. It is in those areas where you have extreme poverty, where children are seen, I mean, they—they have such short lives, but they are seen as assets in terms of trying to, you know, scrounge up wood, scrounge up food, you know, to feed the family. Not realizing
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that they’re adding to the problem. And I don’t think the way to do that, this is the position of the church, is to do like they did in China, you know, pass a rule that you can only have one child. The rest of them you have to abort. And you can see why the Chinese did it, but we think that’s going at it backward. What you need to do is to get—to raise the level of—the standard of living for your people and they will take care of that themselves. Because they will want to get those children educated. And nowadays, the church has always preached that when you get married and if you’re able to have children, you should have children, just enough to maintain the population level and
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increase it slightly. Well, like in my family, we were eight kids. Now my brothers and—and sisters and their—their—my grandchildren, they don’t have that many kids. They have a higher level of—of—of—of—of education, they have a higher standard of living, life is more than just being this immediate family where you have to have—like when I grew up on the farm, we didn’t have tractors, we had horses and you did everything by hand. And therefore, it required a lot of hands. But today, like the brother who—who owns that—those five farms I’m talking about, he has two children. He adopted one, he
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died in an accident, but they only had two themselves. So, there’s a natural, nature takes care of itself in these kinds of ways, so our thesis, my thesis is that instead of putting barriers between Mexico and the United States, keep them out, all this kind of thing. What we ought to do is help Mexico become a democracy more than it is now, you know, it’s been controlled by the PRI, you know, the Revolutionary Party, although the present
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president doesn’t come out of that party and he’s making very—great efforts to get a two or three party system going in Mexico. But what—what we’ve got to do is have President John Kennedy’s policy of a good neighbor policy, that we help them raise their economic level. Those people—I know a lot of those people that come up here, my brother employs them. They don’t come up here because they are lazy; they are the hardest people—working people I’ve ever encountered. And my brother says, every week they come and they want him to send a money order back to their wife and family back in Mexico. And they’ll work up here just as long enough that they can live for a
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whole year down there. So, the good neighbor policy was intended to help the people raise their standard of living and that would take care of the population control. Now, I do believe that historically, the church had had too much of a fixation on matters of sexual ethics and morals. I—that’s a whole new area that’s being explored at the present time. That the creative power that was given to us as human beings was somehow wrong. You know, Augustine preached that, he—he believed that the body is bad and the soul is good and, you know, that’s just coming out of his Manichean, we studied that
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philosophy which saw the world as black and white, dark and evil, body and soul, all that kind of thing. And, of course, he himself in his younger years was quite a roustabout. I mean he painted the town red. He had a ch—ille—illegitimate child. But he did a complete turn, and ever since that time, the church has looked upon, while, you know, promoting good family life and all of that, nevertheless tries to control what people are
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doing in their individual—we don’t look at it that way, but that’s what it comes down to. We’re saying, that’s wrong, this is right and this is wrong. And there’s been a—you look at the calendar of saints, and most of the saints are not married people. I mentioned St. Isidore and Maria, they were—and they are—they are both canonized saints, or at least he is, I think she’s kind of an informal saint going along with him. But, at any rate, you have that and so that’s a real problem and I think the church honestly needs to look at all of that along with these environmental issues and these issues of war and peace and the nuclear weapons and all of that sort of stuff. It—it does make those efforts, but it does
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have the image, and one must acknowledge that, of not being exactly—how do you say that—not enough concerned about the—the growth of population. You’ll say, well, there’s lots of space, I mean, you—you know, you drive between Amarillo and El Paso and you can drive sometimes for hundreds of miles, you don’t even see a jackrabbit. So there’s lots of land out here, however, just no water. You know, so how are you going to have somebody live there. So this kind of balance. There are voices in the church, I mean, it’s not that it’s a, you know, just a one issue thing; there are voices in the church raising those issues.
DT: Well, you were one of the voices in the church as well through your publications. Can you talk a little bit about your journalism?
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LM: Yes, yes. I was editor of our…
DW: I have something too because, on that note, you defined a prophet as being someone whose job is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I’m coming from a totally different background; I’d always been taught that’s the definition of a journalist. So I can see that as being a very interesting push-pull for what you’re about to describe.
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LM: Okay. Yes. After I was ordained a priest in 1946, the bishop had already known that I was interested in writing; I, in fact, I started a newspaper within the seminary called it Semaphore. And so, when I was ordained, he sent me up to Denver to study journalism for two years. It was a working study, I read books for about six weeks and I remember the editor-in-chief said—he was a self-made journalist, said, well, read one of those books, if you’ve read that one, you’ve read them all. And then he asked me if I’d gone to a journalism school and I said, no. And he said, good, I don’t have to unteach you. So he put me to work and I was there and it was wonderful. I came back then in ’48 and was named editor of the paper and then in 1950, I began to write a column in the
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paper which I call Wise and Otherwise. And there I talked about these kinds of issues. In the beginning, of course, very much about farm life, about the environment, talked about growing up on the farm, that sort of thing. And I guess that was an educational thing, it got to be fairly popular. And then later on, of course, talked about other issues,
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particularly the nuclear issue. So, I guess in that sense I was being a teacher, being a—a—a prophet, I think maybe that’s what journalists should be. That’s a question nowadays, you know, there’s all these charges that, again, that the almighty dollar drives everything so that the—the media are not as objective as they used to be because they have to be careful about who’s paying the bills, that sort of thing. That’s always been there, that sort of problem. But, I think, among the journalists, you need to have investigative reporters, you need to have the kind of thing that you’re doing in this project, to—to educate, to teach, and to afflict the comfortable and then come back and
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comfort the afflicted. I think that’s what it means to be a prophet. I—I wrote that column for—until 1980 so for about 30 years. And we’re currently—I’m writing a book called Wise and Otherwise-A Memoir. And I’m talking about all the experiences that I had, reflections on that. I—first, I was encouraged simply to reprint some of the best of those columns, but I submitted that to a publisher but he said, that won’t work because one column I would write about farming, another one I’d write about violence, another one I’d talk about education and—and that sort of thing. So, I—I’m submitting that
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manuscript here shortly to a publisher in the hope that it will get published because I think it has something to say on the lines that we’re talking about. I have a—a chapter on—on sustainable agriculture and the environment and that sort of thing. So, yes—of course, there’s no question but that the media are very, very influential and powerful today and that, you know, we have so much information given to us and it’s difficult to
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sort truth from fiction, it’s difficult to find a voice that really is prophetic. But I think that’s absolutely essential. Society will never really survive in the way that it should unless there are prophets in our midst, and we have them in terms of what we’re talking about, in terms of sustainable agriculture, and protection of the environment, protection of our water and air, soil, and all of that.
DT: Well, when you look into the future, what do you see as the big challenges or opportunities? In an environmental sense…
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LM: Well, I—I think there has to be, what I would almost call a revolution in our society. I don’t mean armed revolution or taking to the streets or that kind of thing. But a revolution in our way of thinking. Going back again to, you know, what Francis did in—in his period, at the beginning of the Middle Ages, that was a period of great prosperity, that was a period in which everything was just very blissful and—and all of that sort of thing. But Francis had an experience of what happens when you go to war, for example, as he did. I’m sure their battles were nothing like we experienced in the last
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century, obviously, just a local deal. But he began to look at life in a much different way, in a revolutionary way. And in fact, succeeded in doing that even though it has not survived in the idyllic way that he first envisioned that, but it takes that kind of thing. And, you know, we’ve had prophets of the civil rights movements, Martin Luther King,
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the assassination of President Kennedy was a major shift in our way of thinking about things. What’s coming out of—I think what we’re—what we’re lacking now is people who are prophets, we’re lacking people who are statespersons in government. It seems to me like we’re getting back to being too nationalistic, closing in on ourselves, just being concerned about ourselves and not the rest of the world, except that they’re all enemies out there or they’re our allies. And then we cherish or we hate them depending upon how they react to our interest. And, of course, we have to be concerned about ourselves, we
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do have the best form of life and government and all the good in the world, no question about that. But we have to guard that, keep that out of the past and try to implement that in the future.
DT: When we first started this interview, you talked about growing up in central west Texas and about looking over the hills and wondering what was beyond. I was curious if you could close with describing if there is a special spot that brings you peace and serenity when you go and visit that place, whether it’s near your home or over the hill.
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LM: Yes, yes, I—I’ve gone back to visit the old farm and, of course, my family, remaining family there. And I’ve taken walks in the evening out to a field. The field was—had been prepared for planting in the spring and I did what sounds kind of crazy. I just laid down in the furrow and felt the earth. When we grew up, we were all barefoot,
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so I remember feeling the rich loam between my toes as Papa was planting and we’d follow along behind the planter as kids and feel that rich, warm soil in our toes. So I tried to recover that when I laid down, I didn’t go barefoot, but I was trying to recapture the smell of that rich soil, this would be like in the springtime, before planting. And I guess just bonding with—and the looking up at the sky and seeing the stars, there’s no pollution in that area, it’s out in the country and, you know, you don’t know how bright the stars are until you get into that—away from the city lights and all of that. And even out in the
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farmland now, you know, there’s all these guardian lights or whatever they’re called, and so we lose some of that as well. However, there, it’s all free and open, the air is pure and you see the falling stars and you wonder about what’s out there. We’ll never really know, we’re exploring out there further. That opens up new possibilities. But—and then I walked down into a pasture where we used to go and we used to pick up arrowheads, reminding me of, you know, the Native Americans, the ones we called Indians, were there. They would come to the Concha River to get the oysters and get pearls out of them, that sort of thing. And, I think that’s a good thing for us to do, and just go back as
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much as we can to recapture some of the innocence of our childhood. We can never really do that. When I was a boy, everything looked huge to me, now I go back and it looks small by comparison. Others may have a different experience, grew up in a city and—and maybe now the city’s gotten so large it looks bigger than ever and it is bigger than ever. But, even so, and I think it’s wonderful that some of the projects—I didn’t
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mention that I was in the 4H Club. We grew up and we learned a lot that way. I was a Boy Scout, our Boy Scout master would take us to the Concha River and we’d go—teach us how to swim and then teach us how to make ropes and teach us how to cook things in the ground and that sort of thing. So we were very, very close to—to Mother Nature, the Good Earth, as Francis talks about, our mother, the Earth. I think that’s—maybe it’s trying to go back, in one sense, back into the womb, you know. But so what. I mean, it’s—that’s how life began, we’ll wind—we’ll wind up in the womb of Mother Earth, but we hope for, and expect, and believe in a resurrection. As I think—nature, you know,
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nature is very resourceful. I—I mention my—my brother, one of my brothers is in the chemical business, fertilizer and chemical business. And each year—one time I visited them and I found him in the office of his warehouse along with several farmers. And they had a—they had a chalkboard there and they were plotting their strategy as to how to defeat the insects the coming season because they had discovered that the insects had gotten, what do you call that, resistant to the chemicals they used last year. They had changed their structure and—and so nature does that. Nature can do some wonderful
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things. Like those places in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and other places, and particularly, of course, also in—in Germany, in Dresden, in those places that were firebombed. You go back there now and you’d never guess that those things happened, except for the Peace Park in Hiroshima. I’ve not been there, but I understand there is one there. Or maybe it’s in Nagasaki. Nature does have a way of repairing itself. Oh, you go down to
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the Yucatan, you go down to Guatemala and you see the Mayan pyramids and all of that, you know. And nature has just simply taken that back over. That whole area is covered with mounds and they tell us that there’s buildings underneath them, but they’re not uncovering them be—you know, except one at a time because they discovered that when they do, the things disintegrate. So then they have to—they use some kind—something to—to preserve them. So as we go into the future, I think there’s great hope. We’ve create our own problems, but we also have the intelligence, and I think the good sense, to
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correct them. Sometimes it takes us a long time; it happens with the church, it happens in medicine, it happens in business, it happens on the farm. I think we’ll get it right, but we need to work together to do that.
DT: Good. Thank you. Is there anything you’d like to add?
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LM: No, I’m just impressed with the professionalism of what you’re doing.
DT: Oh, well, you’re very kind. Thank you very much for spending this morning with us.
[End of Reel 2211]
[End of Interview with Leroy Matthiesen]