PUNTA GORDA | Through storytelling, Scripture, science and research, a group of speakers reminded advocates how the foundation for respect life reveals a range of issues from abstinence to marriage, immigration to liturgy, and compassion in health care to preventing abortion.
And each of those issues reveal a core value that radiates respect of life — the dignity of the human person.
The Diocese of Venice hosted this year’s Florida Respect Life Conference, held Sept. 28 and 29 in Punta Gorda. Sponsored by the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the event gathered 450 to a jam-packed agenda of speakers, including a keynote by Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso. Some 150 attendees also gathered for a preconference on Friday afternoon, and on Saturday the conference welcomed 230 youths for a special track dedicated to them.
Because of the great response, the youth track was held at Sacred Heart Parish in Punta Gorda, about a half-mile away from the Convention Center when the general conference as held. Whether at the convention center or the parish, the event centered on the theme “Love one another as I have loved you.”
Bishop Seitz focused on the liturgy, saying it is the “font source from which all the Church’s power flows” and going to liturgy is not something Catholics “do on the side.” He said with the liturgy, “we find the foundation of Jesus’ teaching lived out” — the dignity of every human person.
“By living this radical, sacrificial, unconditional love, it is upon this foundation that the Christian foundation of justice is built,” Bishop Seitz said.
“Everything I know living as a Catholic Christian, I learned at Mass. Everything. It’s all there. It’s really not even that complicated. The liturgy, and the Mass in particular, is Christ-encountered, it is the Gospel experience, it is community achieved, it is the kingdom present,” Bishop Seitz continued. “It is the gift of life welcomed and glorified. It is from here the practice of social justice wells up in the Church.”
The bishop went on to explain how the history of the early Church reveals examples of preferential compassion for the poor. A church in northern Africa that was sacked by the Romans in the fourth century revealed a list of items taken. Among them were chalices, but also a large amount of clothing, such as tunics for women and shoes. This revealed how the Church offered items to the less fortunate, an early commitment to loving your neighbor in need.
“Liturgy teaches us how we can love someone we do not know,” Bishop Seitz said, whether that person is a community member outside our circle of family and friends, the sick and dying, an unwed mother or an immigrant or refugee from another country — a key to the conviction of social justice. A commitment to the other; not ourselves.
“No human life, no matter how unanticipated by us, is ever a mistake on the part of God. … The liturgy should move us to courage and conviction in the recognition that we belong to God’s kingdom. This passing world does not drive our priorities. … The kingdom of justice and peace in the celebration of the liturgy should never be cowered into silence or acquiescence when the culture of death seeks to impose its will on us. That world is already dead. We know who we are. We know our dignity and that of our brothers and sisters. And we know our destiny.”
Sexuality and chastity and the prevention and history of abortion were topics discussed by three speakers, all of whom made separate presentations at both tracks of the conference. Terry Beatley spoke about her research on the history of abortion in the United States, including a relationship with Dr. Bernard Nathanson, a former advocate of abortion rights who became a pro-life proponent in his later years. Catherine Davis of the Restoration Project spoke about post-abortion counseling.
Stephanie Gray, an international speaker who has debated on large stages including universities and Google headquarters, revealed the power of storytelling and listening when having discussions or debates about abortion. In one example, she spoke about being on a university campus to which the discussion revolved around whether a woman who is impregnated through rape should be an exemption to an allowable abortion. While Gray offered salient arguments, one young woman kept questioning her points with, “Yeah, but.” She did so during the presentation and afterwards when the two had a private discussion.
It was during their private discussion that Gray realized the woman’s obstinance to any points offered might be personal. Perhaps the problem was not in her head but in her heart. So Gray shared the story of a friend who was a victim of sexual abuse and how she helped her as best as possible. She explained how sexual assault is traumatic, but added an abortion won’t not take that pain away. The woman replied, “Yeah. Ten years and counting.”
“And I said I was so sorry for your suffering,” Gray recalled. “In that moment the whole course of our conversation changed. I set aside all my arguments and stories that I knew to tell her in order to hear hers. As she left that day I saw a person transformed.”
But Gray added the transformation didn’t happen because the woman’s mind was changed. Rather it happened because the woman was asked how she was doing, did she feel safe and was the abuser still a part of her life. It reminded Gray of something she had heard from Justice for All.
“When someone asks about rape, they aren’t asking if the baby is human; they are asking if the pro-lifer is human. Do we care as much about the person in front of us as we rightfully do about the child in the womb? Do we reverence them? And do they know it?”
Pamela Stenzel, an international speaker on chastity and abstinence who also works with pregnancy crisis centers, spoke about how many times young people have sex without realizing the consequences, which is not only an unplanned pregnancy but, more damning, exposure to sexually transmitted diseases. And it is every adults’ responsibility — laity, clergy and religious — to speak about the truths concerning sex.
“Sex in marriage is the foundation of the respect life movement,” she said. “Some kids say, ‘But we were in love.’ But God didn’t create sex for love. He created it for the lifetime commitment of marriage.”
During a speech to the United Nations, Stenzel laid out reasoning for abstinence education. While one member said the reasons were good, he added that young people “can’t control themselves,” so there should be distribution of condoms. Stenzel disagreed.
“You don’t need to set the bar low when speaking to kids about sexuality,” Stenzel said. “God’s love is easy. It’s not complicated and it is for all of us, young and old.”
Other topics offered included health care, specifically a preconference presentation of end-of-life decisions offered by Deacon Al Mauriello. As a physician he has years of experience dealing with the question of moral care versus medical treatment. The talk focused pain management and quality of life and how extraordinary methods are not necessary to avoid a spiritual quandary of ending life prematurely. Intent and clarity of care — not treatment — is necessary on an individual level.
Afterwards, preconference attendees learned about the many dimensions of dementia and its treatment from Dr. Michael Gloth. While there is no cure for dementia on the horizon, there is hope in understanding the different types of diseases related to dementia, and areas of treatment and research. One attendee asked the question, “Can someone with Alzheimer’s disease die with dignity?” The answer from both physicians was, “Yes,” followed by discussion.
One of the final presentations of the event came from 80-year-old Marietta Jaeger Lane. She opened her talk stating at 18 she was a victim of sexual assault and became pregnant. This year that child — her oldest son — celebrated his 62nd birthday.
But Lane’s presentation did not focus on that issue. In sharing the story of another child — 7-year-old Suzy — she offered an inspired example of forgiveness in the face of a devastated tragedy.
Suzy was kidnapped and murdered during a family vacation in Montana. After 15 months, her remains were identified as well as the man responsible for her death — a serial child killer named David Meirhofer.
It was during that 15 months — during which Meirhofer would call and mock the family — that the rage that first festered with Lane slowly transformed.
“God spoke to me. God was calling me to pray for him,” Lane said of the kidnapper. While he would call and be smug and nasty, Lane’s first inclination was to make him as miserable as she and her family were. But instead she listened to the voice of God who guided her to ask for blessings upon the kidnapper and ask that his heart be changed. “He wasn’t counting on (my compassion). I told him I’d been praying for him for days, and I was met with dead silence. So, I asked, ‘What can I do for you?’ He started sobbing and said he wished this burden could be lifted.”
Despite that reaction, he continued to play games until finally the FBI captured him, thanks to recorded tapes Lane kept of their conversations. When he was arrested, there was the possibility he would be given the death penalty for his crimes. While Lane wanted to see him punished, she did not want him killed in her name or her child’s name.
“To kill someone in Suzy’s name would ruin her name. She needed a better memorial,” Lane said. “We needed to honor Suzy by doing something befitting of who she was, and to stand up and say all of life is sacred and worthy of restoration.”
Unfortunately, Meirhofer committed suicide in his prison cell before a trial. Lane said that is not what she wanted for him or for her daughter’s memory. But it led her to advocate for life without the possibility of parole and to speak about how the death penalty does not offer closure to victim families.
“Forgiveness is the bottom line to a relationship with God,” she said. “It’s not easy. Every murdered victim family should feel anger, but they need to be held in the midst of a community that believes all life is sacred and they can heal.”