As I write this article the past two days of meetings in Albany are fresh in my mind. Each year at the beginning of March Catholics from throughout the Empire State use various means of transportation to journey to our state capital to meet with legislators on issues of importance to the people of our state.
On Monday, the bishops met with Governor Andrew Cuomo, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. On Tuesday, we met with various members of the Senate and the Assembly, participated in a rosary prayer rally sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and joined the procession to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Albany for the celebration of Mass.
“Catholics at the Capitol” provides us with a golden opportunity to make our voices heard on important issues that affect the life and dignity of the human person. The New York State Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the bishops, coordinates the day which brings about 1,500 people including nearly 500 members of the Knights of Columbus to advocate on a variety of topics important to us.
The role of the Conference is to seek justice, fairness and charity for all, with a particular emphasis on the poor and vulnerable. The position of the Conference transcends the political agenda of political parties. It is neither Democratic nor Republican, liberal nor conservative. The positions the Conference takes are based on the principles of Catholic social teaching and the recognition of the dignity of every human person made in the image and likeness of God.
A number of students from Catholic high schools and religious education programs usually take part in the day. I was happy to see so many young people from our diocese taking a very active role in the day’s discussions and meetings. Public Policy Day puts students in a totally different role than the one in which they typically find themselves. Usually they are on the receiving end of information about religion and secular subjects. In this case, however, the young people are working with Catholic adults to inform legislators and advance the advocacy efforts of the Church in the public policy arena.
We are asking them to actively participate in “selling” the issues on the Bishop’s public policy agenda. Bringing social justice principles into the public forum and informing legislators about issues that affect the well-being and dignity our brothers and sisters, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized are works of evangelization. In this prophetic role, our young people are challenged to leave their comfort zone and risk rejection — much like Jesus did. To engage in this task, the young people must understand the issues, understand the arena and understand how the two interact. Their teachers and advisors do an excellent job preparing them to undertake this task.
I believe that Public Policy Day is a unique opportunity that provides students with a real-life situation where they can integrate theory and practice. It calls them to evaluate immediate needs in light of the Gospel, to become familiar with the structural issues in state government and to assess legislation in terms of our Catholic values and teachings. This blending of information and practical application is important for the Church of today and tomorrow. It is a great training ground for our future Parish Council leaders.
The day focused on five primary issues which were studied and discussed by our young adults and more seasoned participants.
1) New York State remains the abortion capital of the nation, with the highest abortion rate. We asked that our legislators oppose the “Reproductive Health Act” (S.2844/A.6 112), which would increase, rather than decrease, the number of abortions. We asked that they restore funding for the Maternity and Early Childhood Foundation (MECF) which helps young low-income pregnant women bear their infants and raise their families. An investment in MECF now will result in long-term savings for the state. “We support a culture of life by supporting laws and programs that encourage childbirth and adoption over abortion and by addressing poverty, providing health care, and offering other assistance to pregnant women, children, and families” (U.S. Catholic Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, 2011).
2) We asked our legislators to preserve Catholic schools and provide equity for all children. Efforts to keep Catholic schools open and affordable are being hurt by the state’s failure to comply with the law requiring full reimbursement of the actual cost of state mandates, as well as the state subsidizing only government school options for parents. As a result, the cost to taxpayers continues to rise unnecessarily. We asked that they restore the Comprehensive Attendance Policy (CAP) reimbursement formula to reimburse schools for their actual CAP costs and level the educational playing field by providing parents with education tax credits or other assistance to give their children equal access to every type of school. “No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation” (Pope Benedict XVI to Catholic educators, Washington, D.C., April 17, 2008).
3) Immigration is always an issue of great concern. Immigrants have been a blessing to this country. English proficiency is critical to become a fully integrated member of our society. Therefore we asked for support for “English as a Second Language” (ESL) instruction, direct legal services and assistance to immigrants on the path toward citizenship. Passage of the New York State Dream Act, farm worker rights protection and enforcement of anti-trafficking legislation must be vigorously pursued. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35).
4) The continuing high rate of unemployment in the overall current economic situation finds too many New Yorkers facing significant financial difficulty. The demand for services has increased. More people are turning to emergency food programs for assistance. The lack of affordable housing has reached critical proportions in all parts of the state. Government must meet its responsibility to help address these needs. We should reject cuts that will impact the most vulnerable. Also, the scheduled increase for those receiving public assistance must not be further delayed. “The first line of attack against poverty must be to build and sustain a healthy economy that provides employment opportunities at just wages for all adults who are able to work” (USCCB, Economic Justice for All, 1986).
5) The prison system in New York State is always a concern. The overwhelming majority of those in prison will return to the community. It is important that during the period of incarceration prisoners benefit from rehabilitation and thus the chances of success when they reenter communities are increased. Therapeutic, educational and vocational programs must be available in state correctional facilities to prepare those who are incarcerated for eventual community reintegration. Support services for those returning to the community from prison can facilitate successful re-entry. “What Christ is looking for is trusting acceptance, an attitude which opens the mind to generous decisions aimed at rectifying the evil done and fostering what is good” (Blessed Pope John Paul II Message for the Jubilee in Prisons, July 9, 2000).
All of us have an obligation to participate in shaping the moral character of society. This is a requirement of our faith, part of the mission given to us by Jesus. Please join me in prayerful concern that the voices of those who traveled to Albany will be heard. In that way all of New York will benefit.
If you have an intention that you would like me to remember in prayer, please send it to me at 240 E. Onondaga St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13201.