Minnesota Catholics converge on St. Paul for day of learning, lobbying

More than 1,000 Minnesota Catholics — including 73 from the Diocese of St. Cloud — came to St. Paul March 9 to deliver a heartfelt message to their elected representatives: “Catholic voices count!”

Bishop Donald Kettler, left, and other participants at Catholics at the Capitol meet with Sen. Paul Gazelka, Senate Majority Leader from Nisswa, March 9 at the Minnesota Senate Building. (Dianne Towalski/The Visitor)

Attendees at the first-ever Catholics at the Capitol event held signs with the phrase and chanted the words in the State Capitol rotunda at the end of a day of activities that included listening to issue briefings, meeting with state legislators and recording a group video message urging Gov. Mark Dayton to support school choice legislation — one of the day’s focus issues.

Bishops from all six Minnesota dioceses attended the event organized by the Minnesota Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in the state.

The bishops and Jason Adkins, MCC executive director, provided morning briefings on three MCC priorities this year at the Legislature: supporting tax credit proposals to expand educational choice, opposing efforts to legalize physician-assisted suicide, and assisting low-income families with adjustments in the Minnesota Family Investment Program.

The education issue especially resonated with Christine Friederichs, principal of St. John’s Area School in Foley. She has been involved in Catholic education for more than 30 years but had never attended an event like Catholics at the Capitol.

“I feel like I’ve ridden on the backs of others for a long time, and it’s just time for me now to be here and do whatever I can to get Catholic education in the forefront and to get it in these legislators’ minds to hopefully get some things passed in the future,” Friederichs told The Visitor as other Catholics prayed the rosary in the Capitol rotunda.

She was in a group that visited three lawmakers from her legislative district. The legislators “were very appreciative of the many Catholics coming down here and asked, ‘Would you consider coming again next year? This is so powerful for you to be here.’ I felt so supported,” Friederichs said.

“I took notes because I plan on sharing this with my faculty,” she said. “I want to make sure they understand that I came down here not just for me personally, but for [them] too, because we want our schools to survive. We’ve got to get these legislators to help us.”

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Rep. Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud) said he supports events like Catholics at the Capitol.

“Catholics certainly have a right to talk to their legislators like everyone else,” he said. “I would encourage citizens to do this. I think a lot of people feel we’re inaccessible and hard to see, but it’s just the opposite. It’s very easy to get an appointment, especially for a constituent. … Hearing the views of constituents is an important part of us being able to represent them here at the Capitol.”

Bishop Donald Kettler, who visited several legislators throughout the day, said he was encouraged to see so many Catholics come together to learn about issues and talk with legislators.

“The most important thing about a day like this is the relationships you form,” he said.

Making a difference

Adkins told attendees at the start of the day at the RiverCentre that the event was a way to “build bridges of friendship” with elected officials and foster a “politics of encounter” that can help Catholics to “make a difference in your corner of the vineyard.”

Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, addresses participants March 9 at the RiverCentre in St. Paul. (Dianne Towalski/The Visitor)

The day started with morning prayer and Mass with the bishops. Bishop James Conley of Lincoln, Nebraska, delivered one of the event’s two keynote addresses.

“Your state needs your faith and your witness,” said Bishop Conley, who said he wanted to convey three main points to attendees:

• “The success of our democracy depends on the generous participation of believers like you and me.” Public religious faith provides the ability to make moral judgments rooted in a sense of the common good rather than in the individual good or personal gain, he said.

• “Catholics do not have a political party, but we do have a political home.” Faithful Catholics, if they’re being honest, can’t be entirely at home or comfortable in either of the major political parties, Bishop Conley said.

“Catholics are not politically liberal nor politically conservative. We are simply Catholics — disciples of Christ and his Gospel,” he said. “Our political home is our eternal home, the city of God. Because of that, our political mission in this world is to build a culture of life and a civilization of love.”

• “Trust in God’s providential plan, even when we don’t see the results.” God is calling us to be faithful witnesses to truth in public life, he said. “Whether or not we see results, the Lord calls us to be faithful to that mission…. and to trust in him.”

Gloria Purvis, co-host of “Authentically Free at Last” on the Eternal Word Television Network and chairwoman for Black Catholics United for Christ, spoke in support of Catholic education based on her own childhood experience of attending Catholic school and converting to the Catholic faith at age 12. And she testified against assisted suicide, telling the story of her severely ill mother who surprised doctors with her recovery from a deep coma.

She told the audience they didn’t need special skills or training to talk to legislators about these important issues.

“Because you are willing, he has qualified you. As they say, ‘God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called,’ and that is you,” Purvis said. “You’re going to go out there and advocate standing on the rock of truth, and you’re not going to be fearful and you’re not going to back away.”

The issues

Following the keynote addresses and issue briefings, participants bused to the Capitol armed with talking points and meeting tips in support of legislative proposals in three areas.

• Expanding educational choice. MCC supports HF 386/SF 256, which would add non-public school tuition as an eligible expense of the K-12 education tax credit, as well as create tax credits for individuals and businesses that donate to scholarship granting organizations.

• Fostering family economic stability. HF 1603/SF 806 would increase the cash grant for the Minnesota Family Investment Program, which assists low-income families with children. The amount of the grant has not increased in 31 years. HF 1453/SF 1165 would eliminate MFIP’s “marriage penalty” that disincentivizes people to marry.

• Opposing the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. MCC opposes HF 1885/SF 1572, which would legalize the practice. The conference supports creating a Palliative Care Advisory Committee (HF 345/SF 112) to advise the commissioner of health on improving the quality and delivery of patient-centered, family-focused palliative care.

Father Alan Wielinski, second from right, pastor of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Fergus Falls, looks down at the rotunda from the second floor of the Capitol March 9. At right is Father Lucho Palomino, who is visiting the diocese from Peru. (Dianne Towalski/The Visitor)

Randy Warzecha, a member of St. Mary’s Cathedral in St. Cloud, said that as a realtor, many of the issues addressed at Catholics at the Capitol relate to his work. Helping low-income families by increasing the MFIP cash grant, for example, can help people who are struggling to meet housing needs.

“When you can get a thousand people to show up at an event like this, people who are actually interested in doing something, that’s a really positive thing,” he said.

Jennifer Dummer, who attended the day with her 11-year-old daughter Naomi, said she came to learn about the legislative process and be surrounded by Catholics who have a common focus.

Dummer, a member of Our Lady of Victory Parish in Fergus Falls, visited with two legislators and said the day helped her see that it’s “easier to get involved than what you might think it is. Every voice counts.”

Bishop John Quinn of Winona closed the day by reminding Catholics not to be afraid of bringing their values in the legislative process and holding lawmakers accountable for what they say and do.

“Now the work begins,” he said. “Go forth and proclaim the Gospel.”

For more information about MCC’s 2017 legislative priorities and to stay informed about important legislative activity as well as other activities related to the Church’s social ministry and policy advocacy, visit mncatholic.org and sign up for the Catholic Advocacy Network.

About Joe Towalski

Joe Towalski is the editor for The Visitor newspaper.

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