Running Toward the Vineyard of the Lord: Harvesting Grapes for God

Running Toward the Vineyard of the Lord: Harvesting Grapes for God November 17, 2023

Early on the first Friday of October, as whispers of mist drifted over the mountains from the sea, chilling the Sonoma County air, my children and I hurried down two flights of stairs in the mountain cabin where we had arrived late the night before. On the wooden porch just outside, we found Roxanne, Art Director for Ignatius Press, who handed me three sets of shears (the six-year-old being deemed too young to use them), and directed us to the southernmost rows of the vineyard.

Carolyn, Fr. Fessio, and my 6 and 8-year-old boys in the vineyard

My boys bounded down the sloping yard, disappearing among the rows of grapes where Fr. Fessio, Founder of Ignatius Press, and Carolyn, long-time Production Editor, were already busy with the Chardonnay harvest. Rosario and I ran along behind them. Roxanne had been up and working in the vineyard before sunrise, Father informed us, then turned to tease my children for sleeping so late. They laughed, getting right to work filling bins with grapes, impressing the adults with their industry.

10-year-old Rosario in the vineyard

The annual grape harvest had drawn my children and me north to work the Ignatius Press vineyard, to learn about the science of fermentation, and to experience hard work. I’ve known Father, Roxanne, and Carolyn for 27 years – since my days attending the St. Ignatius Institute (which Fr. Fessio founded) at the University of San Francisco and working as Carolyn’s assistant – so they are more than friends, they are family. When they mentioned during our visit in November 2022 that the grape harvest was a big job, we volunteered to return.

Author helping with the Chardonnay harvest

We spent the next six hours in the vineyard. Though the day had dawned cool, temperatures rose after the sun came over the ridge to shine directly on the vineyard, yet on we toiled. After snipping all the bunches of ripe Chardonnay grapes, we moved to the northern side of the vineyard for Pinot Noir grapes, ending with Merlot grapes. Once we reached a steady rhythm, Fr. Fessio, in his 80s, began carrying bins full of grapes up the hill, stacking them on the bed of a little truck, then zipping around behind the house for de-stemming. My kids, noticing what he was doing, begged for rides, their squeals of delight wafting down between the grapes.

8-year-old Antonio de-stemming the Pinot Noir grapes

Pausing to look around, I marveled at the privilege of helping to harvest grapes in a vineyard that would provide wine that would become the Blood of Christ during Holy Mass – not the ones we were picking today, Fr. Fessio explained, as they were not yet ripe. Working alongside a priest turned my thoughts to the days when Christians toiled alongside their parish priests in the fields, harvesting the grapes and the wheat that would eventually find their way to the altar. Whereas many people might think back to medieval Europe, my mind turned to the Americas, to the early years after Christianity’s arrival.

Chardonnay grapes in the press

Since racing toward the vineyard with my children that morning, the words of fray Francisco de Los Ángeles Quinoñes, Minister General of the Franciscan Order, had been running through my mind. In a 1523 document known as “The Obedience” commissioning the first official contingency of Twelve Franciscans to evangelize in the New World, he wrote:

“But now that the day is far spent and passing away, which is the eleventh hour of which the gospel speaks, you are called by the head of the family to go forth into his vineyard; not hired for a price like the others, but rather like true sons of such a father, not seeking your own interests, but those of Jesus Christ without promise of pay or reward, may you run like sons following your father to the vineyard….”  (October 30, 1523 in Latin)

Fr. Fessio pressing grapes as my children look on

In the New World vineyard, the friars would encounter a land without wheat or grapes, so that in the early years they said “dry” Masses, that is, without the Sacred Elements. When they taught native people the Lord’s Prayer (the first catechisms were pictographic), they changed the word “bread” to “tortillas” (my children love this!). It’s also said that some friars called the Eucharist tlateochihualli tlaxcalzintli in Nahuatl, or “the blessed little tortilla,” referencing not only its shape, but also its essential role in indigenous society in central Mexico.

The vineyard

My children and I had run toward a vineyard that morning to assist a priest in harvesting grapes growing alongside other grapes that would become the Blood of Christ – what a gift! Fr. Fessio echoed my own thoughts when, during the sermon at that afternoon’s Mass, he prayed for those who worked eight to ten hours in the fields six days a week so that we might have food on our tables. Turning back to face the altar, he raised his hands, and intoned the prayers in Latin. Words I had heard countless times before took on new meaning: “Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink.” As we responded with “Benedictus Deus in saecula,” I understood and appreciated the prayer as I never had before. My children and I may not have brought our crops to church in offering as in days of old, but by helping to harvest grapes in the fields alongside a priest and fellow members of the community, we had joined in a continuum of historical experience, channeling all the Christians before us who had toiled in the vineyard of the Lord, physically, spiritually, or both.

May we always run joyfully toward the vineyard of the Lord without thought of reward or pay, following the Father.

The cabin overlooking the vineyard

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