The Sisters Go to Albany

On March 10, I travelled with three of the Sisters of Life to attend the New York State Catholic Conference’s Forum Day in Albany. The purpose of the day is to bring Catholics from around the state to the Capitol to lobby our legislators on behalf of Catholic interests — pro-life issues, Catholic schools, charitable works, and health care.

And, on its own terms, the day went pretty much as planned. There was a convention first, at which two Catholic legislators addressed the crowd, speaking about how their faith works in public life. This was followed by Mass celebrated by the Cardinal, together with almost all the other Catholic bishops of New York State. There were legislative visits going on all throughout the morning, as people visited their representatives’ offices and presented our positions to them and their staffs. A well-deserved award was given to Dr. Catherine HIckey, the former Superintendent of Schools here in the Archdiocese, for her lifetime of work on behalf of Catholic education.

Albany is a tough place to do this kind of grassroots lobbying. The system is so opaque and difficult, the process so Byzantine, that it is hard to get a straight answer from anyone about what’s going to happen, and nobody can really predict very far into the future. For me, the day was in many ways the same as it always has been. I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve met with many legislators and their staffs. Let’s just say that all of this has left me a bit cynical and jaded.

Visiting Albany with the Sisters of Life, however, is an entirely different kind of experience. To begin with, the Sisters don’t lobby. That’s not why they’re there. They’re there to witness. And during the convention, people flocked to the pro-life table to speak to the Sisters, to shake their hands, to take their literature, to tell them about what they’re doing for the cause, and just to spend time with them. One of them, Sr. Mary Loretta, spent most of the morning hanging out with the students from Lourdes High School, chatting with them, encouraging them, and she even went along with them to their legislative visit to lend moral support. The legislators who visited the convention went out of their way to meet the Sisters, and one even sat with them during Mass.

Later, our pro-life lobbyist in Albany, Kathy Gallagher, took us over to the Capitol building. Walking anywhere with the Sisters of Life is an exercise in patience — you have to pause every ten feet becuase people are constantly stopping them to talk. Eventually, though, we got to the Capitol and Kathy took us on a tour. It’s a beautiful building, and we saw all the right things — the Senate and Assembly chambers, the magnificent stairways, etc.

And it was here that the Sisters did their real work in Albany. Just by walking the corridors in their simple and beautiful habits, they made a strong statement that the busy staff members couldn’t help but get. They spoke to the clerks, the guards, and to the legislators we met. The best moment came on the floor of the Senate chamber, to which we had been admitted at the request of one of the Senators. While Sr. Lucy and Sr. Aquinas spoke to the Senator, Sr. Loretta talked to one of the clerks, a very nice man who was giving us a short tour. When she found out that he was Catholic, she pressed a small Miraculous Medal into his hand and, holding his hand, prayed for him. He was deeply moved — as was I — and tears came to his eyes.

Here we were, on the floor of the New York State Senate, in the seat of political power, where decisions are made that affect people’s property, liberty — and even life itself. And here were the Sisters, who own no property and have no power, but they have something more important. They brought Jesus to the Capitol, to the Senate chamber, and to the people they encountered.

When the Church steps into the public arena, we all too often speak the worldly language of power and influence. What the Sisters taught me, yet again, is that the voice of God is different. It is soft and still, and spoken quietly from person to person, from heart to heart.

And it speaks not of power, but of love. That’s what the Sister of Life brought to Albany that day.

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