This rather short documentary (43 minutes) by filmmaker Sebastian Gomes is a story of love that comes straight from the heart of people who love the Appalachia mountains and the people who live there. Whether nuns, ordinary folk, or clergy, they make up a group called the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA.) It was founded in 1970 to serve the people of Appalachia, the poor and the entire web of creation. This new film tells the story of the CCA and their continuing efforts to listen to the stories of the people by asking them, “What is it like to be you in this place?”
Initially the first two pastoral letters the CCA wrote were endorsed by the Catholic bishops of the region but as the priorities of the bishops changed from interest in social justice (calling for systematic social and corporate changes to help the people from the physical impact of coal mining, mountaintop removal, deforestation, fracking, the damage to the environment and clean water to name a few), the CCA decided to continue writing letters just the same, relying on the magisterium, or teaching authority, of the people. It is a “people’s pastoral.” I sensed strong ecclesiological connections to the Vatican II documents on the church and the world: Lumen gentium and Gaudium et spes. Listening to the stories of the people is a deeply held value for the CCA.
There are so many great quotes in the film that I hope the CCA will publish the script on their website. One person explains that, “Human activity is responsible for the misery of other human beings. But they don’t want to hear about this when the only way to change is for them to listen to the people.” Another says that, “God’s creation is in danger and it is through creation that people will be affirmed or denied their human rights.”
Sister Simone Campbell, a Sister of Social Service, is the director of NETWORK that sponsors the “Nuns of the Bus” social justice awareness initiative, includes politicians when she says that the major “problem with the GOP is that they have lost their sense of community. And all the angry people out there who bought into the individualism and its promise of wealth has now abandoned them.”
It is evident from the film that the Appalachian people and members of CCA love their community and seek to build it up by addressing the environmental issues and the exploitation of resources (“You cannot be healthy with dirty water,” says Sr Carol Keehan, DC, outgoing president of the Catholic Heath Association.)
The film also looks at the tension the citizens of Appalachia feel when they go to work for the coal companies, when there is work to be had. They know the damage coal mining is doing to their health (when coal companies blast the mountaintops, water wells crack so that chemicals pollute drinking water through the ground, and particulates get into the air that cause respiratory problems, tumor and cancers) and their environment, yet they have to feed their families. It is a catch-22 that requires initiative and social, systematic change.
This documentary is about listening to those without power, sharing that skill with viewers, encouraging in solidarity and certainly action.
“If certain people admitted to the [situation] they would either have a conscience problem or they would have to give it up,” says one man. A woman says of one community: “These 97 families were not even being told they were being poisoned.” That this documentary is airing just a week after the news broke on December 18 that there is a black lung epidemic all across Appalachia that the government knew about and could have prevented (you can listen to the NPR report here) is certainly timely and prophetic. The CCA spokespersons in the film also praise Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ because it reflects their own conviction that we are all connected and responsible for one another and the earth
“Magisterium of the People” is a most worthy documentary about Catholic presence and action in Appalachia. It is gentle but is empowered with humanity and truth. It enters into the canon of documentaries over the past several years that seek to reveal the exploitation for profit of people’s lives, families, and the environment (See my review: “The Last Mountain: Documentary exposes America’s big dirty secret” and “The cost of coal mining goes on trial in What Lies Upstream” for starters.)
Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv Credit: Salt+Light TV
The surprise of the film comes at the end with the appointment of Bishop John Stowe, OFM Conv by Pope Francis to head the Diocese of Lexington, KY. Three days after his installment in 2015 he contacted the CCA and lent his name to their newest pastoral letter. This endorsement and this bishop’s ongoing involvement in CCA to benefit the people of Appalachia, is prophetic as he walks among his people listening and accompanying them on their journey for human rights and justice.
“Magisterium of the People: The Story of the People’s Pastoral from the Catholic Community of Appalachia” is a production of Salt+Light Television (Toronto, Canada) will premiere on Salt+Light Television at 8:00PM Christmas evening.