By Connie Berry
ALBANY — Two hundred Catholics from the Syracuse Diocese joined hundreds more from all the dioceses in New York State for Public Policy Day on March 8. The New York State Catholic Conference plans the event each year. Catholics came by bus and carpools, and they had a mission. This year there were seven policy concerns that Catholics wanted to address on behalf of the bishops of the state.
• Oppose the radical “Reproductive Health Act” abortion bill and support for alternatives to abortion.
• Support comprehensive conscience protection for individuals and institutions.
• Preserve Catholic schools.
• Protect the poor and those severely impacted by the economic turndown.
• Maintain the health care infrastructure and health care coverage for low- and moderate-income individuals.
• Support juvenile justice reform that results in a system that better serves youth and community.
• Oppose the redefinition of marriage.
The purpose of the day is to use the public forum to discuss issues that are close to the heart of Catholics, especially the state’s bishops. This year’s event began with Mass at the newly-renovated Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany. The beautiful church was filled to capacity as Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York celebrated the Mass with his brother bishops on the altar. He began by saying that there was nothing more significant than coming together to begin the day with the liturgy.
“Thank you for your presence,” Archbishop Dolan told everyone. “I speak for my brother bishops when I say that you are an inspiration to us.”
He told all those gathered that the day offered them the opportunity to bring the light of the Gospel to the public square. Archbishop Dolan recognized them as, “Men and women who take their Catholic faith and American citizenship very seriously.” Then in a lighter moment he added, “And we’d like to thank the school children who sacrificed a day off today.”
Archbishop Dolan told a story during his homily about his seminary days and how he and his friends would be anxious over exams. One instructor decided to give the class the questions ahead of time. This, Archbishop Dolan explained, only made them realize that they would have no excuse for doing poorly on the test.
“That’s what Jesus does,” Archbishop Dolan said. “He gives us the questions. How did you treat the stranger? How did you treat those without a roof or those without a family or without clothes?”
The archbishop said that at an earlier meeting someone had asked why Catholic citizens don’t appear to the have the clout or power that other groups have when it comes to the public square. Archbishop Dolan articulated a few of the reasons.
“First of all, I don’t know if you’re right. Secondly, belonging to the Catholic faith we don’t use words like ‘clout’ or ‘power’ because we are here to serve others. Thirdly, maybe you have a point. We’re always on the side of those without a voice. On the side of people who can’t even vote — the person on death row, immigrants, children, the unborn. People who don’t have a voice look to us.”
After the Mass there was the opportunity for the high school students to listen to a few legislators during their lunch break. Bishop Terry LaValley of the Diocese of Ogdensburg spoke to the students as well. The legislators welcomed the students and thanked them for coming. Ironically both speakers attended Catholic high school and told the students they should recognize what a privilege it is to receive a Catholic education.
Bishop LaValley spoke to the students telling them, “Our Christian identity will not be immediately evident unless they see the deeds we do.”
He told the students that keeping their faith “private” is a “comfortable delusion.”
“If we live our faith from inside and out, we’ll be able to set the trends, not just follow them,” he told the students.
After lunch, several groups from the diocese went to the various legislator’s offices to bring their attention to the Catholic issues at the forefront. While there were opportunities to meet with legislators, many of them were attending joint sessions leaving lobbyists to meet with aides in many instances. The newly-elected member of the Assembly 121st District Donald R. Miller’s office was visited by a group that included students from Bishop Grimes Junior/Senior High School. Miller’s district includes Cicero, Clay, Manlius, Pompey, LaFayette, Brewerton and North Syracuse. The Grimes students, all seniors, were well-versed on the Catholic position of the seven main issues. They met with one of Miller’s aides, Dan Fitzpatrick, and gave him a sheet outlining the bishops’ position on the seven issues. Fitzpatrick read the information during the meeting and said he thought Miller’s stance would be right in line with the Catholic position.
William Hirsh, a Grimes student, addressed the juvenile justice reform issue, telling Fitzpatrick the current system is “broken and in need of repair.” He urged the legislator to take a look at the way the detention centers are operating. “We are wasting resources that could be used to rehabilitate youth,” Hirsh said.
Fitzpatrick told Hirsh that there is a youth center in Cicero, the CanTeen, which is a model program and the only one of its kind in Central New York. Hirsh said he knew of the program and that it had been very helpful for a friend of his who visited the CanTeen, a supervised drop-in site for teenagers.
Grimes senior Anthony Ruffo spoke out on the poor and supporting their needs.
“If we take away what helps the poor it reflects on our nation,” Ruffo told Fitzpatrick.
Grimes’ campus minister Doug Carney added that there is a moral obligation to look after the poor. “So we’re looking to you. If they cutback Medicare who will suffer?” Carney asked.
Ruffo also spoke on behalf of preserving traditional marriage. “This goes to the first amendment,” Ruffo said. “You shouldn’t be forced to do something you don’t agree with.”
“The assemblyman is in complete agreement with you,” Fitzpatrick said. “Marriage is a specific institution that belongs to a man and woman.”
Bob Walters, diocesan director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry was the facilitator for the group, which also included representatives from Catholic Charities. The students were particularly interested in the issue of preserving Catholic schools. They urged Fitzpatrick to reimburse the Catholic schools for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) payroll tax which costs independent and religious schools around New York City around $7 million annually. Public schools are being reimbursed for their MTA costs. The state also owes religious and independent schools an estimatted $270 million in Mandated Services and Comprehensive Attendance Policy reimbursement.
“Can we pick that check up downstairs?” Carney asked.