Catholics at the Capitol draws over 1,000
ST. PAUL - March 9 saw St. Paul's RiverCentre and the Minnesota State Capitol abuzz with more than 1,000 Catholics - including a contingent of 90 from the Diocese of Winona - who had come to meet their lawmakers, cultivate civic friendship, and advocate for legislation that promotes human life and dignity, at Minnesota Catholic Conference's inaugural Catholics at the Capitol. Every senate district in the state was represented.
The first part of the day took place in the RiverCentre. It began with Morning Prayer and Mass, followed by issue briefings, advocacy training, and words of inspiration from the event's two featured speakers: Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska; and Gloria Purvis, an activist with Black Catholics for Life and host of Authentically Free at Last on EWTN and Morning Glory on EWTN Global Catholic Radio.
Minnesota Catholic Conference Executive Director Jason Adkins helped set the day's tone by calling upon the words of Pope Francis:
"'A good Catholic meddles in politics,' Pope Francis tells us, because it is one of the highest forms of charity. The gospel calls us to serve others and to protect the vulnerable in everything we do, including political participation. It's certainly counter-cultural, but the Church sees politics as a form of civic friendship at a time when polarization and partisanship are pulling us apart."
He added, "Today is about building relationships, practicing what might be called politics of encounter. The relationships you build today among each other within your parishes and districts, but also with your legislators, will hopefully continue as we work to protect life and human dignity."
To stay organized in their efforts, participants were encouraged to focus their discussions with lawmakers on three causes that currently face legislation in the state: expansion of educational choice through a scholarship tax credit, steps toward ending persistent family poverty, and prevention of physician-assisted suicide.
"From the very beginnings in the United States, we as Catholics have tried to offer education that forms the whole person," said Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese, speaking on the importance of school choice. "We've done this in some of the poorest neighborhoods in this country. We've done this in rural areas. And we do it not only for Catholics, but we do it because we're Catholic."
Bishop Cozzens went on to emphasize the important role Catholic schools play in closing Minnesota's achievement gap, and how greater educational choice would benefit disadvantaged students. He closed by taking out his cell phone to film a video message for Governor Mark Dayton, who was receiving treatment for prostate cancer. Having already led a prayer for the governor, Bishop Cozzens wished him a speedy recovery and, along with more than 1,000 other Catholics, encouraging him to "support school choice!"
Bishop Donald Kettler of the St. Cloud Diocese addressed the need to pass legislation that fosters family economic stability by removing the "marriage penalty" attached to government assistance, and increasing the amount granted to families who need help, which hasn't changed since 1986.
"Jesus Christ, the God Man, was poor himself throughout his life here on earth," said Bishop Kettler. "Because we are to imitate the life of Jesus, including his being poor, we have a special concern for the poor and marginalized. ...Not only do we care for the poor and the marginalized, we also look at our own manner of living and how we ourselves use and share the goods that God has given us."
Bishop John M. LeVoir of the New Ulm Diocese drew upon his experiences as a priest caring for the sick and elderly to address the topic of physician-assisted suicide.
"Death is never the answer," he said. "Sometimes people seek that answer in death. It seems simple. It seems compassionate. Arguments can be made that make it sound very good, very acceptable, very loving, but ... any priest can tell you, I'm sure, hundreds of stories about visiting those who are debilitated, those who are suffering, those who are in nursing homes, hospitals, hospice and extended care. We've visited these people. We've talked with these people. We've prayed with these people, and there's nothing better for them than love."
The Minnesota Catholic Conference stands against physician-assisted suicide because of the Catholic conviction that all human life is sacred, and also because the treatment of death as an option for patients "undermines medicine, puts the vulnerable at risk, and disincentivizes care." Catholics at the Capitol participants were made aware of the "End of Life Options Act," which, if passed, would allow terminally-ill patients to receive "medication" to end their lives. They were also encouraged to advocate for the establishment of a Palliative Care Advisory Committee, which would be "committed to ensuring the best possible quality of life for patients dealing with serious illness and disease."
Bishop Conley noted the fitting location of the Minnesota State Capitol at the confluence of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and John Ireland Boulevard, named for the first Catholic Archbishop of the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese.
Conley said the boulevards, named for two great leaders of faith who were deeply engaged in public life "should remind us of certain fundamental and important truths: that democracies depend on believers to witness prophetically to virtue, to truth, to goodness, and to beauty; that believers have a critical and important role to play in the public life for the common good, to build a culture of life and a civilization of love; and that we must do all of this as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ. Your state needs your faith and your witness," he said.
He encouraged the audience not to be swayed by those who say that religious beliefs should be confined to private life.
"The founding fathers believed that well-formed believers were essential and critical for maintaining the social contract underlying the US Constitution," he said. "The Gospel reveals a common good, through which every human person, no matter what their faith or background is, can flourish and be happy. The Gospel calls the world to objective standards of truth."
Gloria Purvis recounted personal experiences that highlighted the importance of Catholic principles in her life. Access to a Catholic education led to her conversion after a mystical encounter she had during Adoration at school, and her mother's recovery from a quadruple bypass and coma, during which a doctor advised "pulling the plug," gave her unique insight to the physician-assisted suicide debate.
"We know there can be blessing in suffering," she said. "God is the divine physician. ... You just don't know what the Lord is going to do with the suffering that is put in front of you."
Purvis had a notable effect on the energy of her audience as she fired them up for their afternoon with the lawmakers, urging them to remember the refrain, "I ain't no ways tired!"
Between visits with legislators, participants met with the Minnesota bishops in the basement of the Capitol or prayed rosaries in the rotunda. Visible amid the throng were members of Little Sisters of the Poor, whose organization has made US headlines in recent years for its opposition to a federal mandate to provide contraception to employees, despite its Catholic convictions.
Young people were an especially spirited presence at the event, with entire senior classes in attendance from three Catholic high schools and individual students from many others, including Pacelli High School in Austin, which sent four passionate students along with a parent and Principal Laura Marreel.
"To say this learning experience was inspiring and powerful for all who attended would be an understatement," Marreel said. "Students and adults learned how to be active voices in our state. We also learned a lot about the lawmakers who represent us. We learned that they will excuse themselves from sessions to listen to the concerns of the citizens they represent. We learned that they genuinely care about the issues that are important to us, even if they may not agree. We learned that advocacy is most powerful when it is peaceful, positive, and cooperative. But the most important lesson we learned is that Catholic voices matter!"
As the 4 p.m. closing drew near, participants produced signs reading "Catholic Voices Count," a phrase they chanted in the Capitol rotunda, led by Gloria Purvis.
In his remarks before leading the final prayer, Bishop Quinn emphasized that Catholics at the Capitol was only the beginning of a struggle to promote human life and dignity in Minnesota.
"What we do now is really going to count," he said. "We are not going to be afraid. We are not going to withdraw from the culture that more than ever needs the truth of Jesus Christ."