Public Policy in the Pews: How the Diocese of Rochester NY Engages Catholics in Advocacy

 

10300 petition signatures for governor 2 - TGF

This year the Diocese of Rochester collected over 10,300 signatures in support of a bill granting basic labor rights to farmworkers in New York State. These workers had been denied overtime pay, a voluntary day of rest per week, and collective bargaining protections.  After years of advocacy by our New York State Catholic Conference and many other groups and individuals, in June our state legislature finally passed the Farmworkers Fair Labor Practices Act to address these injustices! Our work was part of this victory.

From support for farmworkers to the DREAM Act to pay equity for women to opposition to physician-assisted suicide and abortion, parishioners in the Diocese of Rochester, New York have been advocating for years on issues across the spectrum of Catholic Social Teaching.

They do so as one voice, through the coordination of the Diocesan Public Policy Committee. This group of clergy and laity from around the central New York State diocese chooses a topical public policy issue each year, which is then reviewed and approved by our bishop. The committee is staffed by Justice & Peace Ministry staff members at Catholic Charities’ offices around the diocese.

These staff members produce materials for parishes to use to raise awareness about the public policy issue each year. Bulletin notices, pulpit announcements, prayers of the faithful and suggestions for educational programs are distributed to the parishes through the Justice & Peace staff. These explain not only the details of the chosen public policy issue but also its connection to our Catholic faith.

All of this awareness-raising culminates in the annual diocesan-wide Public Policy Weekend.  During the Saturday evening and Sunday Masses on a designated weekend, the issue is discussed during or after the homily.  Parishioners are then invited to sign petitions advocating for the issue. These signatures are tallied, gathered up with those of other parishes, and eventually delivered to the elected officials representing those parishes.

Yes, we do this advocacy work right at (or just after) Mass.  For me, this reflects the original meaning of the word liturgy which comes from the Greek leitos meaning public and ergo meaning to do. “Liturgy” for the Greeks meant a public duty or service. The U.S. Bishops wrote in their document Faithful Citizenship, “In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation” (13). In the Diocese of Rochester, the liturgy is one setting for our parishioners to do their public duty and meet that moral obligation.

Over the years, we have found that the way to collect the most signatures is to give time for this during the Mass. Tabling at the back of church after Mass just isn’t as effective, as people can get distracted and hurry out the door. Instead, I encourage parishes to harness what I call “the awesome power of the clipboard.”

10300 petition signatures for - TGFThis means providing clipboards and pens in every pew with the petitions attached. Then during the Mass, either after the homily or after a post-Communion announcement, parishioners are invited to sign the petition and pass the clipboards along. The petition sheets can then be placed in the collection baskets, or simply left in the pews and collected after Mass.

Completing the petitions during Mass is a powerful way to make the connection between worship and action. It is a reminder that as surely as Christ is present in the Eucharist, he is also present in “the least, the lost, the last and the little” for whom we are speaking out. We receive his Body, and we become his Body the Church, and we serve him in them, through this work.

Through our work to highlight a variety of issues over the years, our Diocesan Public Policy Committee has helped parishioners to recognize the breadth of Catholic Social Teaching.  This advocacy also reminds people of the power they have to advocate with our state and federal elected officials, and the importance of their calling to build up Christ’s reign of dignity, justice, and peace.

Harness the “awesome power of the clipboard” in your parish!

Answer the call of Catholic Social Teaching by helping your fellow parishioners participate in advocacy on important justice concerns in your area. When you bring public policy to the pews in your diocese, here are some best practices to engender wide participation in these advocacy efforts:

  • Two weeks before Public Policy Weekend, print the text of the petition in the parish bulletin to alert people on what they’ll be asked to sign.
  • One week before Public Policy Weekend, invite a member of the parish team orchestrating these efforts to announce that the Weekend is coming and to speak briefly about the issue at all the Masses.

Laurie 2Laurie Konwinski serves as the Deputy Director of Catholic Charities in Tompkins and Tioga Counties in upstate New York, in the Diocese of Rochester.  She coordinates Catholic Charities’ Justice & Peace Ministry for Tompkins County. Laurie is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and holds a master’s degree from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa Canada.

Going Deeper!

Looking to learn more about how your parish can get involved with local advocacy? Check out this advocacy toolkit and read more about a parish in Minnesota that empowers parishioners to put their faith into action.