Catholics from all over Missouri attend MCC Annual Assembly

David Bereit, founder of 40 days for Life, now with FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), addresses Catholic advocacy in his keynote speech to Missouri Catholic Conference assembly attendees Oct. 5 at the Missouri State Capitol. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Catholic Conference, founded in 1967 and domiciled in Jefferson City, annually holds an assembly for all interested Catholics in the state of Missouri. Talks and workshops are based on an inclusive theme — the 2019 Assembly, held Oct. 5 in the Missouri State Capitol Building, was themed “Raising the Next Generation of Catholic Advocates.”

What is Catholic advocacy? It is encouraging, promulgating and championing initiatives, policies and laws for the common good and the most vulnerable members of a community. Catholic advocates use their gifts in government, schools, prisons and neighborhoods as “a voice for the voiceless”.

Keynote speaker David Bereit delivered his address in the House Chamber. A convert to Catholicism, Bereit founded and led 40 Days for Life for many years. Now, with his wife Margaret, he helps FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) develop its “Love Life” initiative. The initiative provides pro-life information and marriage support for missionaries across America. Bereit is a popular Catholic-Christian speaker, media spokesperson, bestselling author, husband and father.

He opened his talk saying, “We are gathered in the chamber where history has been written.” Bills affecting the citizens of the State of Missouri have been presented in that chamber since 1917.

He continued, “Catholics make a difference as to what the future will hold. There is great reason now to be concerned about the state of our culture that we will hand down to our kids.”

“What causes a civilization or nation to fail or die?” Four things stood out to him:

  • A decrease in religious beliefs and practices;
  • An increase in immorality: the sexualization of society and a culture of violence;
  • The breakdown of the family: divorce and/or single parenting,
  • The devaluing of human life.

“The United States,” he said, “was founded on Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness. Roe v Wade has impacted our society profoundly. Thousands in this state alone have lost their lives to abortion. We are in the midst of a battle for the soul of this nation.”

Bereit’s address focused on Catholic advocacy and included stories of advocates like St. Teresa of Calcutta, volunteers with 40 Days for Life, and suggestions for becoming an advocate. He urged his audience to “find the issue that makes it personal and make it your mission. You may be the only Bible somebody reads!”

Bereit told of Mother Teresa, a tireless advocate for the poor, visiting a Catholic high school in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., during a trip to the U.S. “A student asked her, ‘How do we become like you?’ She answered, ‘Find your Calcutta.’”

As the founder of 40 days for Life, Bereit was an advocate for the unborn. 40 Days for Life is an internationally coordinated campaign to end abortion through prayer, fasting, community outreach and peaceful, 24/7 vigils in front of abortion businesses. Unfazed by protesters, hecklers and law enforcement, he participated in prayer ministries outside of abortion clinics, praying for women seeking an abortion, and praying for an end to legalized abortion.

The first campaign was in 2007. Since then, 40 Days for Life campaigns have reached 816 cities and 56 countries.

“With God all things are possible,” he told the assembly. “In 20 years, 16,004 babies were saved from abortion world-wide, 191 abortion workers quit, and 104 Planned Parenthoods closed their doors, for good.”

He spoke of a friend of his, a young man who was the only one of his siblings who was able to spend time with his dying father. The older man was in the last stages of cancer and had difficulty speaking, but he asked his son to pray the Rosary with him. At first the young man objected, but after his father insisted, they prayed the Rosary together to end abortion.

The younger man visited daily, and the same request was made by the older man. Finally, the father told him why he wanted the son to pray with him. When the father was a young man, he and his girlfriend discovered she was pregnant, and he wanted her to have an abortion. He paid for it in advance, but she didn’t keep the appointment. Their parents insisted they get married. The old man commented, “The only one of my children who comes to visit me is the one I wanted to abort,” then told the son how grateful he was that the young man was there with him. The father died a few days later. Later the young man became an advocate with 40 Days for Life.

Bereit said that God gives a message of hope in Jeremiah 29:11. “For I know well the plans I have in minds for you,” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare, not for woe! plans to give you a future full of hope.” The tide has turned, the speaker said, “God has moved. He wants you to be engaged in building a culture of life.”

The FOCUS initiative Bereit is now engaged with, established its pilot program in January 1998 at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., with two staff members and 24 students. Staff member Curtis Martin discussed the mission of the organization with Pope John Paul II that same year.

Bereit said St. John Paul II told Martin, ‘Be soldiers. Win, build and send life-long Catholics into mission.’

Today FOCUS is on 164 college and university campuses. Bereit said 700 students have entered religious vocations from FOCUS.

He then spoke of The Culture Project, a pro-life program which works to help young people understand their dignity and worth through chastity. The goal is to restore the nation’s culture through virtue. The Culture project encourages students to rebuild morality.

Some of the program’s bywords include:

“You are a child of God, you are worthy, you are non-repeatable, you were made for more, you have one life to live.”

The Culture Project works against the destruction of the family through mentorship. Young couples are mentored by older couples and build on what they learn from them.

The devaluing of human life has had a terrible impact on society, Bereit said. 40 days for life prayer and fasting, 24/7 campaigns to end abortion, sidewalk counseling, works to change that.

Bereit’s gaze traveled across the room. “All of the advocacy groups and the Church needs you at this time,” he said. “We are striving for renewal, for the restoration of the faith, for revival of the sanctity of life. The Holy Spirit is with us.”

In conclusion he quoted Mother Teresa. “Do something beautiful for God!”

Four longtime advocates Marian Sister Cecilia Ann Rezac, M.S.; Mike Halterman, Lois Thomas, and Sam Lee, shared their stories with the assembly.

Sr. Cecilia Ann is the Director of Schools for the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau’s Catholic School System in Springfield, who has taught fourth grade and middle school students. She told the story of a fourth-grade boy, who was abandoned by his mother, bullied and friendless. As his teacher she wanted him to feel loved, so she took him under her wing, helped him learn to smile by sharing God’s smile with him. That’s advocacy she said, offering others God’s smile of mercy. The boy wrote a poem, and his teacher helped him get it published.

“Your whole life changes when you know you are loved,” she said.

Mike Halterman, former CEO of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, served four years in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. His wartime experiences gave him the knowledge and foresight to know what veterans, especially Vietnam veterans, needed to survive and prosper. Many Vietnam vets suffer from hunger, addictions, Post Traumatic Stress and homelessness.

Halterman attended graduate school after his discharge and upon graduation started a 40-year career with Catholic Charities. While at the helm of the agency, he worked to get funding for and build an apartment complex for veterans in Kansas City. St. Michael’s Veteran’s Center, on a 24-acre campus with 117 affordable apartments, opened in 2014, near the Veteran’s hospital.

Phase I opened in 2014; Phase II and a service center opened in 2016. Phase III is planned. And, he said, the Veterans Center is not named after him, it is named in honor of St. Michael the Archangel.

Halterman is retired, living in O’Fallon, Mo., and still actively engaged in social justice activities.

Lois Thomas lives in Jefferson City and is a long-time corrections volunteer, ministering at Algoa Correctional Center, a minimum-security prison in Jefferson City. She coordinates a Legion of Mary prayer group; Is active in Residents Encounter Christ, a prison retreat program, and has directed and served on many REC retreats at correctional center throughout Missouri. She shared stories of revitalized faith of some inmates and the conversion of others through Residents Encounter Christ.

Sam Lee, Director of Campaign Life Missouri, has been a full-time pro-life lobbyist at the State Capito for more than 33 years. Lee is an ordained permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He has been a champion of the unborn and their mothers throughout his career.

At the conclusion of the advocates’ talks, they were presented with service awards by the four bishops present Archbishop Robert J. Carlson of St. Louis, Bishop James Johnston, Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph; Bishop Edward Rice of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, and Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City.

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Saturday
October 19, 2019
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph