Drought looms heavy on the minds of ranchers as another open winter quickly turns to another dry spring. The situation is starting to look bleak for ranchers peering over the abyss of high hay prices and dry, dusty pastures.
Father Bryce Lungren of Gillette, Wyoming is the parish priest for the rural towns of Hulett, Moorcroft, and Wright, which means that a good number of his parishioners are involved in agriculture. He knows their distress, and he is not waiting until the situation becomes dire: the priest is doing something about it right now.
Beginning in February, Lungren has been passing out prayer cards with his Prayer for Moisture at cow sales, bull sales, during mass, and to anyone in passing. He says, “Ranchers are king of ‘it’s going to rain next year.’ Then we have a dry winter and here we’re coming into spring, and I’m like, our track record isn’t good. I don’t think these guys can survive another dry year […] It’s on everybody’s mind, but I don’t want to wait until May to start praying for rain.”
Gaining as many prayers as possible, he rallied his parishioners around praying a Novena for Rain, based upon the ancient practice of praying for a particular favor over nine successive days. The culmination of this novena was a mass held at the Durham Buffalo Ranch near Wright, Wyoming on March 30.
Some have questioned the bold claims that Lungren is making about faith. To any who doubt, he points to the Scripture which he includes in his prayer, “Amen, amen, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in my name, he will give it to you, John 16:23.” Still others question the efficacy of his prayers, doubting their purpose if it will rain anyway. To this he says, “I would gladly be a laughingstock if it rains.” To have hope is to have humility, and Lungren has both.
Lungren’s roots are also in Wyoming agriculture, so this is a meaningful campaign for him. He grew up on a fifth-generation homestead in Worland at the mouth of Gooseberry Creek, where he and his family farmed irrigated land. After graduating high school, he took a job working for his uncle in Helena, Montana at his trailer sales business. Later, he began calving for a family, and fell in love with their daughter. “That was my first experience of full-time ranching. I thought to myself, ‘Every gift and desire I’ve ever had is right here.’ I loved ranching. I was there for three years and we got engaged,” he said.
“After 9/11, things changed. I felt a real desire to go all in with the Lord, like Saint Francis, but I didn’t know what that looked like. I just wanted to go all in with God,” says Lungren. After spending more time in study and prayer, he realized that he was not on the path meant for him. “The desire for the priesthood came back, and [God] and I had to make some tough decisions, but He made it known that He was calling me. So I left,” he says.
Like Peter and Andrew, Lungren “laid down his nets,” which meant ending his engagement and leaving the ranching lifestyle he had come to love. “When I left the ranch, I left it all. This is how I know I went all in with the Lord: I gave my pickup to the monastery and bought a Subaru,” Lungren laughs. He enrolled in seminary, and in eight years became a priest.
During the final year of his seminary, Lungren had his vocation, but was wrestling with his location. “When I went to seminary, I signed up for the Diocese of Helena, but I always longed for home. As I was trying to figure things out, I went and stayed with my priest friend on the [Wind River] Reservation. The doors were open to come to Wyoming, but I didn’t know how to reconcile that with my felt obligation to Montana. Providence played out,” he says. One day, an unstarted stallion ran into the mission of St. Stephen’s near Riverton. When Lungren saw him, he knew that would be his horse. At the same time, it signified something bigger. “When I saw that horse and I listened to my heart, I thought, ‘I am called home,’” he says. So, he accepted his position at St. Matthew’s in Gillette (as well as the three mission parishes) in 2019, and “Chief” has been with him ever since.
Lungren gave his life to God, and God gave his life back to him. Being authentic as a priest is his “modus operandi,” and he has found ways to keep ties with agriculture while serving his parish communities. He now has two horses, which he rides to check his lease near Hulett.
There, he runs a dozen heiferettes every year, which he butchers himself. Lungren also enjoys building, and helps the John Paul II Catholic School students build picnic tables for fundraising. “I live out my sonship as Bryce, as I serve as Father Bryce. It’s the proper ordering. The priest God wants me to be is the man God encourages me to be. He’s not trying to transform me into someone different,” he says.
“In July 2020, Wyoming passed an amendment to the Food Freedom Act that allows a producer to cut and distribute their own meat, without being a meat cutting facility,” Lungren says. After spending the morning in his parish office, he can be found on many afternoons in the refrigerator trailer which he transformed into his own butcher shop. He does not sell the meat, but shares the meat with shareholders in his herd. “I would never want to do it for a living, but a few hours here and there keeps me grounded. Knowing that the work you’re doing is going to feed somebody that you care about and love, essentially, it’s just so motivating. I gladly work into the night there. It’s a huge gift,” he says. Throughout the year, he enjoys helping at brandings, trail riding, and traveling on pilgrimages around the world.
Lungren was recognized by the Knights of Columbus as the Wyoming Priest of the Year in 2021 (awarded only recently, due to Covid). You are welcome to join him in praying for rain.
Oh God, our Heavenly Father, you promised to give your children whatever they ask for in the name of Jesus your son. (John 16:23) Therefore, I ask you to pour out much needed moisture upon our dry land. Grant us adequate means to fill our rivers and reservoirs and provide for spring and summer grass and crops. Please also send us your Holy Spirit to grant us wisdom in how to deal with these challenging times. We ask this all with confidence in your providential love and through Christ our Lord. Amen.