Respect Life coordinators are commissioned; website unveiled

By: By Jennifer Willems

Religious freedom is something the Founding Fathers of the United States believed in. They risked their lives by signing the Declaration of Independence and that religious freedom shouldn’t be taken for granted today, according to the keynote speaker at last Saturday’s Respect Life Celebration in Peoria.

“If you learn nothing else from today’s talk remember this: As Catholics and as Americans our rights do not come from the government. Our rights don’t come from the state. Our rights come from a transcendent being Catholics call God,” Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Illinois, told respect life coordinators from around the diocese who attended the annual event, which was held at the Family Resources Center in Peoria.

They started the day by asking that same God for strength and guidance at a Mass celebrated by Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, at St. Mary’s Cathedral. The liturgy included a commissioning service in which the coordinators expressed their willingness to accept “the ministry of the Respect Life apostolate so the Gospel of Life may radiate more fully to the world” and to commit themselves to daily prayer “for the defense of life, the conversion of our enemies, and the protection of religious liberty.”

“May God who has begun this good work in you, bring it to completion,” Bishop Jenky said.

Father William Miller, IC, who chairs the Diocesan Respect Life Board, thanked the bishop in return for his “leadership and vision, for promoting the culture of life, and for inculcating the Gospel of Life in everything that we do.”

“On behalf of everyone here and all the ministries represented, we renew our commitment to support you, to pray for you, and to be united in following your leadership,” said Father Miller, who is pastor of Corpus Christi and St. Patrick in Galesburg and Sacred Heart in Abingdon.

After lunch the coordinators got an introduction to the new website of the Respect Life Program of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Peoria, which sponsored the day. It includes links for programs and services such as Central Illinois Right to Life, Christ Child Society, Family Resources Center, OSF Faith Community Nursing, Rachel’s Vineyard, Women’s Care Center and 40 Days for Life, as well as the Catholic Conference of Illinois, Elizabeth Ministry International, Project Rachel, Students for Life of Illinois and the U.S. Bishops’ Office for Pro-Life Activities, among others.

The website can be found at

In his talk, “Religious Liberty in Today’s Culture,” Gilligan said people tend to support religious liberty in the abstract. It’s when it comes down to application that problems arise.

“There is a difference between freedom of worship and freedom of expression,” he explained. “Oftentimes in the mainstream culture you hear politicians defending the freedom to worship. We’ve got that. I’m not too worried about that yet in the United States of America in 2014.”

The struggle over the Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” is an example of what can happen if the line between those two freedoms blur.

When religious leaders objected to the mandate to cover contraception as “preventive services” in their health plans, the Obama Administration attempted to provide exemptions by defining what is and isn’t church, Gilligan said. According to the proposal, a religious employer is one that employs people of the same faith, serves people of the same faith, and transmits religious values while doing so.

“That’s a huge problem, because Jesus Christ himself didn’t do that. Neither did Mother Teresa. Nobody did that,” Gilligan said.

“What does Catholic Charities do? Do you think they ask, ‘Are you Catholic?’ They serve you if you show up,” he said. “We employ a lot of people who are not Catholic. We serve people, we employ people, and we don’t always, while serving people at Catholic Charities — giving them a bowl of soup — proselytize.”

The action of helping people, healing people and teaching people is part of the religious expression of these Catholic social service agencies, hospitals and schools, Gilligan told them.

The current accommodation, which exempts religious organizations from the mandate to cover the services they object to as long as they notify the government, also poses problems.

“We feel we should be able to define what is the expression of our religious practice, not the state,” he said. “That, at the heart of it, is what it’s still all about.”

Gilligan encouraged the respect life coordinators to remember that religious freedom is something to be cherished and the work to preserve it must continue. Doing that means reflecting on what religious freedom is and how we express our faith by what we do.

“Stay positive, stay informed, stay active,” he continued. “These things can be very frustrating and sometimes we can come across as a little negative, a little shrill. I would counsel against that. We need to stay positive.”

Gilligan added that it’s important not to approach all issues with the same intensity, but to focus on what’s most important. He suggested that protecting marriage and the sanctity of human life are top priorities.

Articulating the truth is essential and so is prayer, he said. “Prayer is the main solution to all these things and we leave it in God’s hands.”

Before sending the respect life coordinators into vicariate groupings for a work session, Father Miller offered them encouragement and a blessing.

“There are persons and groups and forces that don’t just disagree with us; they want us out of health care, they want us out of education, they want us out of social services and they don’t care who it hurts,” he said. “We need to know that — not to be intimidated, but to realize what we’re up against.

“This is a battle, but thanks be to God, the battle is the Lord’s and that’s why we’re going to make use of every means,” Father Miller said.

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