MADISON — Speakers at the ninth biennial Catholics at the Capitol legislative conference urged Catholics to put their faith into action in the public arena.

Close to 200 Catholics from around the state attended the conference, Wednesday, April 8, which began with sessions at the Monona Terrace Community and Convention Center and concluded with participants visiting the offices of their state legislators.

Breakout sessions cover issues important to catholics

Mary C. Uhler and Kevin Wondrash
Catholic Herald Madison Staff

     MADISON — Catholics at the Capitol included a variety of breakout sessions focusing on various aspects of Catholic social teaching and issues confronting the state, nation and world. Here are summaries of several of those sessions.

‘The Synod on the Family’

     The whole world was paying attention as bishops and cardinals discussed the family at last year’s extraordinary synod at the Vatican. One couple from Wisconsin, Alice and Jeff Heinzen, also attended and spoke at the synod. Alice Heinzen, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life in the Diocese of La Crosse, spoke about her experiences at the synod and some of the important messages on family gained from it. She shared pictures of her time at the synod, including those of her and Jeff with Pope Francis. Pope Francis was the “dad” as the synod discussed challenges families face across the globe, she said. Heinzen said the pope wants to help families. To do that, he urges all to share the truths about family: that marriage is a foundation, children are a gift, and parents are the primary educators for their children.

‘Lost Church, Lost Community’

     Two sides of a growing storyline in the Catholic Church were told in one breakout session — focusing on how parishes and schools adapt to mergers and closures. Dominican Sr. Zita Simon, pastoral associate from Good Shepherd Parish, Madison, told the story of the merging of St. James and St. Joseph parishes. She called it a  “new culture” that’s growing from the combined parish communities: English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, and French-speaking cultures, as well as new young families. 
     More challenging experiences were described by Peggy Schoenfuss, director of faith formation in the Diocese of Superior. She talked about the effects on the community and diocese when churches and schools close, mostly rural. She said a school closing means there will be a “decrease in human capital” followed by a decrease in revenue because people often leave areas where schools close. 

‘Are Wisconsin’s Voters Really Polarized?’

     Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, and John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, discussed state voters’ views on key issues and what policies might reflect “common ground.” 
     In survey results from 2014, Franklin showed how the entire state population and supporters of each political party felt on key issues. On some issues, the general population did not agree with the candidates they supported. Huebscher said it is hard to find common ground on issues, but two areas might be criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion in the state.

‘Racial Disparity in Wisconsin’

     Discussing racial disparity in the areas of economic opportunity, education and justice were Ken Taylor, executive director of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and David W. Fields Jr., Wisconsin coordinator of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s National Ex-Offenders Re-Entry Project. 
     Taylor showed statistics revealing that Wisconsin has the highest unemployment rate for black people in the nation at 19.9 percent with the unemployment rate for whites being less than 5 percent. Wisconsin also ranks near the bottom in the well-being of black children. He noted that his organization’s Race to Equity project is addressing racial disparities. 
     Fields suggested dealing with racism by identifying it and working to eliminate it, especially in churches. 
     “Churches have a primary role” in dealing with racism and poverty issues, he said. 

Theme of the day was “A Church United in Hope and Love.” Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Madison presided at an opening prayer service. 

In his opening remarks, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee said, “We are certainly a blessed people. We have our faith. We care for our brothers and sisters from birth to natural death. 

“It is a necessity to take our Catholic faith and put it into action. We are blessed to have a participatory democracy. We have to exercise our rights in order to preserve them,” he said.

In a spirit of bipartisanship, two Catholic Wisconsin legislators welcomed those attending the conference. Introducing them was John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, the public policy voice of the state’s Catholic bishops.

 “It’s important to open the day in this way,” said Huebscher. “We are speaking to legislators who are Democrats and Republicans. It’s important to articulate our message, to reach out to everyone. We are bound together to serve the common good.”

Speaking first was State Senator Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), the Senate majority leader. He encouraged those attending the conference to visit the state Capitol later in the day, noting that it is an “interesting” time in the Legislature now. 

“We are going 100 miles an hour,” he said, referring to the budget deliberation process and a number of other bills being considered.

Representative Peter Barca (D-Kenosha) also spoke, saying, “It’s so valuable to have people of faith and our Catholic tradition here. You’re coming at a good time. Many policy issues are put into the budget. It’s important that you weigh in on the issues.”

The speakers mentioned such issues as long-term care, family care, help for people with disabilities, aging services, education, the University of Wisconsin system, a new arena for the city of Milwaukee, and pro-life issues among those that should be of interest to citizens.

“It’s important to lobby your officials from a faith-based perspective,” said Barca.

In his keynote address, Dr. Jonathan J. Reyes emphasized the importance of combatting poverty through a “culture of encounter.”

Reyes, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointed to the Catholic concept of justice as building “right relationships” between God and each other. 

“Relationships matter,” he said, noting that Pope Francis often talks about reaching out to the marginalized, the isolated, the poor and the poor in spirit.

More and more, Reyes said, we are experiencing “two Americas”: one with the middle and upper class who have access to many opportunities and the other with minimal opportunities for education and work. 

“These two worlds increasingly aren’t in touch with each other,” Reyes said.

People in each America often don’t see each other. 

“We can’t even see the marginalized. They’re isolated. They have lost hope,” he said.

How do we heal this gap? Reyes said what is needed is a “culture of encounter” or encuentro in Spanish, which he defined as “a communion of persons, a deep kind of personal connection.”

Pope Francis, he said, has encouraged us to reach out to others and look them in the eyes, not just “toss them some charity.”

As an example of the kind of encounter Pope Francis suggests, Reyes talked about a Franciscan priest who works in a homeless shelter in Denver, where 330 people sleep each night.

One night, in freezing weather, a knock came at the door of the shelter at 1 a.m. Although he wasn’t supposed to open the door, the priest opened it and a woman walked in, wrapped in coats but with no shoes on her bleeding feet. 

While the priest worried about following procedure, a young volunteer got a bowl of warm water and towels and washed the women’s feet. 

“That woman had dignity,” Reyes said. “How easy it is to forget to encounter others.”

Reyes also suggested building encounter with people on the other side of an issue. 

“Every human being is made in the image and likeness of God. We need to foster (an) encounter with Jesus Christ and other people,” he said.

He suggested we encounter Jesus Christ in the Scriptures, sacraments and prayer, but also in everyone we meet, including “the poor on the streets.”

The Wisconsin Catholic bishops have formed a taskforce to help them develop a state-wide Catholic response to poverty. In a panel discussion, five panelists shared their perspectives on what Catholics should ask of society and each other in addressing poverty.

Panelists included Archbishop Listecki; Josie Montañez-Tyler and Ralph Middlecamp of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul-District Council of Madison; Mary Jacobson of Catholic Charities-Diocese of La Crosse; and Edward Lump, Wisconsin Restaurant Association. Huebscher moderated the panel.

Panelists talked about experiencing poverty in their own families and meeting poor people in their jobs and communities.

Montañez-Tyler said she had “fond memories” of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul when her own family went to the society’s food pantry when she was growing up. She has worked for the society for six years to help those in need. 

Archbishop Listecki grew up on the southeast side of Chicago near steel mills. 

“I never thought of it as being poor,” he said, since his family had a home, food and an education.

Archbishop Listecki said that economic conditions, physical difficulties and disabilities and political oppression all lead to poverty. 

“If you raise the level of education, you can break the cycle of poverty,” he said.

The speakers agreed that systemic changes need to be made, but above all, members of the church need to be present with those in poverty. 

“The Corporal Works of Mercy are central to living a Christian life,” said Middlecamp. “It’s not extra credit.”

“We must look at the image of God in all of us. Solidarity says we’re all connected, and what hurts one of us, hurts all of us,” said Archbishop Listecki.

The conference was a collaborative effort between the Wisconsin Catholic Conference and Catholic organizations around the state, including archdiocesan and diocesan offices of social concerns and respect life, Catholic Charities agencies, the Catholic Health Association of Wisconsin, Councils of Catholic Women, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious-Region IX, and Wisconsin Society of St. Vincent de Paul Councils.