Citizenship and discipleship

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cover32212Diocese of Syracuse advocates in Albany during ‘Catholics at the Capitol’

By Katherine Long
Sun associate editor

   Buses and cars from across the Diocese of Syracuse set off for Albany in the early morning hours of March 13, bound for the annual day of public policy advocacy known as “Catholics at the Capitol.” Sponsored by the New York State Catholic Conference, the organization that represents New York’s bishops in public policy matters, the day was an opportunity for Catholics from New York State’s eight dioceses to speak with their lawmakers about priority issues identified by the bishops.

   More than 1,000 Catholics, many sporting large red buttons identifying them as “Catholics at the Capitol,” filled the halls of the Convention Center, Legislative Office Building and State Capitol. Among them were Bishop Robert Cunningham and some 185 students, teachers, diocesan staff and others from the diocese. In a side conference room, small groups eagerly prepared to meet with more than a dozen senators, assemblymen and assemblywomen who represent districts within the diocese. Five key issues were on the day’s docket:
• Oppose the “Reproductive Health Act”
• Assist immigrants
• Protect the poor
• Support community reentry for the incarcerated
• Preserve Catholic schools and provide equity for all school children.

   Seton Catholic Central High School principal and president of Broome County Catholic Schools Richard Bucci led a large and spirited group in a meeting with Sen. Thomas Libous (R, 52nd Dist.). Several young people, including Seton student and Catholic Charities volunteer Molly Martin, spoke to the needs of the working poor and urged the senator to increase support for emergency food services, especially in light of the devastating floods that hit the Southern Tier last fall. Sen. Libous acknowledged the importance of expanding such services but admitted that with the state’s tight budget, “there’s only so much to work with.” Joseph Slavik, diocesan director of Catholic Charities, asked about the status of the Reproductive Health Act. Sen. Libous said he was “very supportive of all pro-life measures” and that he was “not going to waver a bit.” He also said he would work to raise Maternity & Early Childhood Foundation funding. Seton student Ryan Moran spoke on behalf of Catholic school students and their families, citing the years he has spent in Catholic schools and the taxes his parents pay to support public schools. Sen. Libous, whose oldest son went to Seton, said he supported tax credits for those who would choose to send their children to private schools.

   Later in the day another group, led by diocesan director of social justice Paul Welch, met with Sen. John DeFrancisco (R, 50th Dist.).

   Seminarian Jason Hage spoke to the need for continued support for community reintegration of the incarcerated, citing his experience visiting an individual in jail and the “revolving door” of offenders that person witnessed. Sen. DeFrancisco agreed on the importance of support systems, recalling his experience with offenders in his days as assistant district attorney in Onondaga County.

   Brian Darby, a case manager with Catholic Charities’ housing services, stressed the importance of Neighborhood and Rural Preservation Programs in supporting housing for the homeless and vulnerable. Sen. DeFrancisco said that funding for the programs, slated for elimination in the Executive Budget, had been restored in the budget proposals developed by the Senate and the Assembly, affirming that “if that structure were lost, it would compound the problem.”

   Catholic Charities program manager Melissa Carbonaro urged the senator not to delay an increase in public assistance grants; originally planned to be a 10% increase in July 2011, a 5% increase in July 2012 and a 5% increase in July 2013 has now been proposed. Contacted for clarification after the meeting, Sen. DeFrancisco said that due to the many pressures on the budget, a change in the governor’s proposal would be unlikely.

   The senator also spoke about changes he believes need to be made to the welfare system. Sen. DeFrancisco said he believes efforts need to be made to reconstruct the system to encourage the family unit and disincentivize generational poverty.

   Diocesan director of the Respect Life Office Lisa Hall thanked the senator for his part in restoring $300,000 to the Maternity & Early Childhood Foundation. The senator also assured the group that he was opposed to the Reproductive Health Act.

   Bishop Cunningham did not participate in meetings on Tuesday, having arrived in Albany on Monday to meet, along with his brother bishops and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R, 9th Dist.) and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D, 64th Dist.). The bishops spoke about a number of issues, including reproductive healthcare, the statute of limitations in relation to sex abuse, assistance for those in jail and resources for immigrants. Bishop Cunningham said the primary purpose of the meetings was to help educate legislators about the church’s concerns and that, overall, discussions were cordial.

   Catholics at the Capitol ended with a packed Mass at Albany’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. Bishop of Albany Howard Hubbard was the principal celebrant and homilist; his fellow bishops of New York State concelebrated. Cardinal Dolan was unable to attend due to a conflicting meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ administrative committee in Washington, D.C.

   In his homily, Bishop Hubbard spoke to the ongoing national debate “about the meaning of the First Amendment and the role of religion in the public forum.”

   “America remains a religious society but increasingly religion is being relegated to our private lives as an aggressively secular culture systematically seeks to exclude religion from all public space,” he said.

    “However,” he continued, “while insisting upon our First Amendment right to exercise our voice in the public forum when entering the public policy arena, I believe that we of the faith community cannot do so by claiming moral superiority for our position simply because we represent a faith tradition.”

   Bishop Hubbard also said it is “imperative that all the members of our church become aware of the issues confronting our society and world, be educated on these issues filtered through the lens of Scriptures and Catholic social teaching and be willing to let our elected officials know of our support of or opposition to particular public policy concerns.”

   Bishop Hubbard closed by thanking those in attendance for their concern for their brothers and sisters in Christ and for their participation in the day’s activities.

   “Through such concern you are truly the hands, feet, voice and heart of Jesus in our time and in our place, and you are fulfilling the mandate Jesus gave us in Matthew 25 to be concerned about ‘the least among us.’”

   Following Communion, Bishop Hubbard represented the bishops of New York in presenting the J. Alan Davitt Award for Exemplary Service posthumously to Father Gregory LeStrange. A beloved priest of the Syracuse Diocese, Father LeStrange passed away in December.

   “Father Gregg was a valued member of the public policy committee whose concern was always for the most vulnerable members of society,” Bishop Hubbard said, noting Father LeStrange’s involvement in various community organizations and his “unwavering devotion to living as a disciple by putting others first.”

   Scott and Amy LeStrange, Father LeStrange’s brother and sister-in-law, said they were “deeply honored” to accept the award on Father LeStrange’s behalf.

   At the end of the day, diocesan director of Public Policy Father Charles Vavonese was pleased with the level of engagement and participation demonstrated.

   “That the Catholic community is here says something to the entire state,” he said. “To borrow Marshall McLuhan’s words, ‘the medium is the message.’”

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