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Catholics make their voices heard in Annapolis

By Erik Zygmont
Twitter: @ReviewErik 
ANNAPOLIS – While the food is one of the best-kept secrets among Maryland Catholics – this year the buffet table featured shrimp and grits – the faithful put business before pleasure Feb. 15, visiting with their legislators to advocate for Catholic causes at the annual Catholics in Annapolis event before hitting the reception.
“We are here, and we are one of the few groups who are here for this, on behalf of the least fortunate,” said Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, briefing participants at St. John Neumann Church, a mission of St. Mary in Annapolis, prior to legislator visits.
With about 200 Catholics from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., and Diocese of Wilmington, Del., padding through the halls of the Senate and House office buildings, and many more attending the reception, turnout easily bested 2016 numbers, according to Mike Gathagan, communications director for the MCC, the legislative lobbying arm of the Maryland bishops.
Cathy Gara, a parishioner of St. Thomas Aquinas in Hampden, said new career flexibility afforded her the opportunity to lobby in person for the first time, and her opposition to physician-assisted suicide gave her the motivation.

Cathy Gara, a parishioner of St. Thomas Aquinas in Hampden, gets ready to visit the House Office Building in Annapolis to talk to her delegates. (Erik Zygmont/CR Staff)

“Life is the most fundamental of all rights,” she said, adding that while assuaging suffering is a noble goal, with physician-assisted suicide “we’re actually exterminating the sufferer instead.”
Gara acknowledged that the elderly and sick suffer more than physically.
“I think we need to work on that as a society – alleviating real causes of people’s suffering,” she said, “like feeling like they’re a burden or that life has no meaning.”
She recalled the final three years of her grandmother’s life; a stroke had disrupted the woman’s ability to communicate or eat on her own.
“While those three years were hard, they brought out a lot of love in the family,” Gara said, noting her grandfather faithfully visited his wife every single day, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., even though “she didn’t know what day it was or what time it was.”
“He didn’t even come to my Ph.D. (doctorate) defense,” Gara said of her grandfather. “I never would have gotten to see the depth of his love for her if she had (committed suicide).”
Accompanying Gara on legislative visits were Sister Ellen Eisenberger and Sister Mary Frances Barnes, both Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and fellow residents, with Gara, of the state’s 40th district, which includes parts of Baltimore City.
Sister Ellen explained that she was eager to speak with legislators about BOOST, a scholarship program for children from families with low income who wish to attend non-public schools, including Catholic schools.

BOOST, or Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today, received $5 million in funding in the state budget for fiscal year 2017, creating 2,464 scholarships for children eligible for free or reduced price school meals, including $2.25 million for children transferring from public schools to non-public schools.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. has proposed increasing BOOST funding to $7 million. 

Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, briefs Catholics from across Maryland at St. John Neumann Mission Church in Annapolis before they head out to visit their legislators Feb. 15. (Erik Zygmont/CR Staff)

“I think it’s good for children who are more deprived to have a chance to go to the school of their choice,” said Sister Ellen, who taught in New York, Georgia, North Carolina and in Baltimore.
The women first visited with Del. Frank Conaway Jr., a Democrat, and opened the dialogue with physician-assisted suicide. They also stopped by Del. Antonio Hayes’ office, also a Democrat, and spoke at length with staffer Tunji Adenekan about physician-assisted suicide.
“He mentioned that two different people had come by (earlier) that supported physician-assisted suicide, but we are the first he met who were against it,” Gara said.
“We got a chance to tell (the legislators) what was important to us,” Sister Ellen said, noting that their conversation with Conaway had touched on a number of Catholic issues.

Vonetta Edwards, a parishioner of St. Ignatius in Baltimore, said she was focusing her advocacy on paid sick leave and the Maryland Law Enforcement Government Trust Act, which would define when local law enforcement participates in federal immigration enforcement activities and prevent stops and arrests on the sole basis for determining immigration status.

“If local police are doing federal activities, then they’re not doing basic policing,” Edwards reasoned, noting the federal government does not reimburse local municipalities for such activities.
She added that immigrants would be reluctant to trust police without the assurances of the Trust Act.
“And they will not report crime nor be a witness, because they are afraid,” put in her pastor, Jesuit Father James Casciotti.
Edwards called the experience of lobbying for Catholic causes “awesome.”
“The legislators were very welcoming,” she said.
“What a pleasure to gather in this fashion,” said Baltimore Archbishop William E. Lori in his remarks at the post-lobbying reception, also attended by Bishop Denis J. Madden, auxiliary bishop emeritus of Baltimore; Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C.; and Bishop Barry C. Knestout, auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C.
“This is the kind of opportunity where we can build bridges,” Archbishop Lori said. 
State Sen. Thomas V. “Mike” Miller, president of the State Senate, acknowledged the Catholic impact across Maryland.
“I had my hip replaced in September,” he said. “I drove past seven hospitals on the way to get it replaced, and they said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ I said it’s just nice to be in a room with a crucifix in it.”

Also see:

Maryland lawmakers hear testimony on paid sick leave  

As Maryland legislative session opens, Catholics expect a strenuous 90 days

Assisted suicide back before Maryland General Assembly