Just days prior to Pope Francis’ change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis the death penalty, more than 100 diocesan, state and national pro-life leaders from across the U.S. gathered for the annual Diocesan Pro-Life Leadership Conference to discuss how best to build a culture of life.

The reinstatement of the death penalty in some states was just one of a host of life-related issues they were there to discuss: Abortion, physician-assisted suicide, contraception and pornography all figured into the sessions, but the entire undertaking was seen through a spiritual lens.

Kristen Hanson accepted the People of Life award given in honor of her late husband. See bottom of story for details. (Billy Hardiman/CATHOLIC SUN)

The theme of the three-day conference, “Missionary Disciples Building a Culture of Life,” pointed to the reality of each person being created in the image and likeness of God and that in baptism, each Christian is called to be both a missionary and a disciple.

Dcn. Omar Gutiérrez, director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith office for the Archdiocese of Omaha, attended the conference alongside three others from Nebraska. Dcn. Gutiérrez referenced Gov. Pete Ricketts, a Catholic who has strongly opposed abortion but who recently spearheaded an effort to bring back the death penalty.

“That’s one of the challenges we’re facing,” Dcn. Gutiérrez said. “Trying to be authentically pro-life in so many different ways, standing up for the other life issues.” A recent legislative effort to legalize assisted suicide in Nebraska was successfully blocked, he added.

Sr. Suzanne Gross, FSE, program coordinator for the pro-life ministry for the Archdiocese of Hartford, spoke of the collaborative effort between Catholics, Protestants, Jews and the disability community in Connecticut to defeat physician-assisted suicide.

“For four years straight now they have not been able to get the bill out of committee. And for our state, that’s quite an accomplishment,” Sr. Suzanne said. “Every year they say it’s going to happen.”

The annual pro-life directors’ conference, Sr. Suzanne said, is an opportunity to learn from other leaders. “Different parts of the country do different things and have different concerns and issues that arise. We always learn from the way they respond to these situations.”

Jerry Peters, the pro-life director for the Diocese of San Angelo, Texas, said he and his wife Kathy attend the conference almost every year. “It’s about networking with other people, learning what’s going on in other dioceses and learning from them. And maybe they can learn from us as well,” Peters said. “In 2013, we got rid of three different Planned Parenthood abortion mills in our area.”

The conference opened with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix. The failure to teach the truth of marriage has caused us to “become lukewarm in our faith, and our lives and our society suffer from the poisonous consequences of lies,” Bishop Olmsted said in his homily. The 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae could be seen as “a mustard seed that Jesus is planting afresh for this present generation” so that the truth about human life could be planted in the cultural soil of our time.

The national conference featured the People of Life awards, bestowed on Catholics who have demonstrated a lifetime of devotion to the pro-life cause and the promotion of the dignity of life.

Honored this year were Msgr. Joseph Ranieri, coordinator of pastoral care of priests in the Archdiocese of Washington, and Janice Benton, executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability.

Msgr. Ranieri assists his diocesan Project Rachel Ministry in many capacities and is also an active member of the Project Rachel Ministry National Training Team for the USCCB.

Benton spent 25 years in ministry and advocacy for and with persons with disabilities prior to becoming director of the NCPD.

James J. Hanson, the third recipient, received the award posthumously for his efforts to oppose assisted suicide and his personal witness to the dignity of each human life, even as he experienced a terminal illness himself. Hanson died at age 36 on Dec. 30, 2017, from brain cancer.

“It would have been easy for J.J. to focus inward but instead he focused on others to warn the public of assisted suicide,” said Greg Schleppenbach before presenting the award to Hanson’s widow, Kristen. Schleppenbach, former director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference and current associate director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, worked closely with Hanson.

All three recipients of the People of Life award — Kristen standing in for her late husband — received a standing ovation from the crowd.