Bishop praises Little Sisters for 'courageous witness' in mandate fight

IMAGE: CNS photo/Peter Ringenberg, Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture

By Ann Carey

standing ovation in a packed Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of
Notre Dame greeted the Little Sisters of the Poor who were on campus April 9 to
receive the Evangelium Vitae Award for outstanding service to human life.

The Little Sisters operate 30
homes in the United States that offer health care and assisted living for more
than 13,000 low-income seniors.

The medal has been presented
annually since 2011 by the university’s Center for Ethics and Culture. Awardees
are announced on Respect Life Sunday in October, with the honor being conferred
the following spring.

The 2016 award event took place
about two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the lawsuit
brought by the Little Sisters, Catholic dioceses and other entities, and other
faith-based groups against the federal mandate that requires most employers,
including religious employers, to offer employee health insurance that covers contraceptives,
sterilizations and abortion-inducing drugs — even if the employer is morally
opposed to such coverage.

The unusual standing ovation erupted
early in the homily of Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend at the
Mass preceding the award banquet. He alluded to the first reading from the Acts
of the Apostles, comparing the sisters’ witness to that of the apostles who
were called before the Sanhedrin,
religious court, and told to stop teaching in the name of Jesus.

“At this Mass, there is a
community of sisters with us who, in the face of a terribly unjust mandate of
our federal government, have stood up, and by their actions have said what St.
Peter and the apostles said to their government in the earliest years of the church:
‘We must obey God rather than men,'” the bishop said.

He added: “I wish to say to
the Little Sisters of the Poor who will receive the Evangelium Vitae medal this
evening, thank you for your courageous witness!”

The enthusiastic ovation then
erupted in the congregation heavy with Notre Dame students. The response
reflected some of the high emotions that have swirled on campus since Notre
Dame’s administration announced March 5 that the university’s 2016 Laetare
Medal would be given at the May 15 graduation ceremony to Vice President Joe
Biden and former House Speaker John Boehner. The Democrat and Republican,
respectively, are both Catholic.

The Laetare Medal, inaugurated
in 1883, is the oldest and most prestigious honor given to American Catholics
in recognition of outstanding service to the church and society. Past
recipients have included people such as President John F. Kennedy, Dorothy Day
and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

Some members of the Notre Dame
community strongly object to the 2016 choice because Biden has a record of
disagreeing with Catholic teaching on abortion and marriage. The Notre Dame
Chapter of University Faculty for Life unanimously approved a statement opposing
the decision to give Biden the award, and a student petition with the same
sentiment has been circulating.

Holy Cross Father John I. Jenkins,
Notre Dame’s president, has said the two men are not being honored for policy
positions but for their public service and dedication to civility in public

However, Bishop Rhoades, in whose
diocese Notre Dame is located, had a different reaction. In a March 14
statement, he noted that when Father Jenkins discussed with him the
consideration of the two men for the medal, he told Father Jenkins it is wrong
to honor any “pro-choice” public official, even if that person has
positive accomplishments in public service.

“The church has continually
urged public officials, especially Catholics, of the grave and clear obligation
to oppose any law that supports or facilitates abortion or that undermines the
authentic meaning of marriage,” the bishop wrote in his March statement. “I
disagree with awarding someone for ‘outstanding service to the church and
society’ who has not been faithful to this obligation.”

Bishop Rhoades did not refer to
the controversy in his homily at the April 9 Evangelium Vitae Mass, but people
who had been following Notre Dame news recognized that the bishop alluded to
the situation, particularly in a section of the homily where he said: “Preaching
with our life, with our witness, is necessary, and it takes courage.

“The church’s credibility
is undermined, Pope Francis says, when there is an inconsistency on the part of
pastors and the faithful between what we say and what we do, between word and
manner of life,” said the bishop.

“There must be a
consistency between what we profess and the way we live, and this includes not
only our personal lives,” he continued, “but also the lives of our
communities, in our dioceses and parishes, our Catholic schools and
universities, our Catholic health care facilities and other institutions.”

At the banquet after the Mass,
the Evangelium Vitae medal was conferred on Little Sister of the Poor Sister Loraine
Marie Maguire, who as U.S. mother provincial of the international order, represented
the sisters. Over a dozen Little Sisters of the Poor and some residents from
several of the sisters’ homes also attended.

Conferring the medal was Notre
Dame law professor Carter Snead, director of the Center for Ethics and
Culture. Recently, he was named to the Pontifical Academy for Life, which
advises the pope on life issues.

Sister Loraine Marie said the
Little Sisters were “honored beyond words” to receive the award, and
she thanked the sisters’ residents for making the sisters’ ministry — and the
award — possible.

She related that the sisters had
faced many challenges in their legal battle, but also had “received many
graces and an outpouring of love and support” and had come to “a new
level of faith and trust in God’s Divine Providence over us.”

Sister Loraine Marie credited
the power of prayer for helping the Little Sisters through the recent difficult
months, saying that prayer is essential for being able to show acceptance and
respect for others with a different belief system, while also witnessing to the

She urged supporters at the
banquet to consider “our common commitment to the Gospel of life in this ‘Year
of Mercy'” by following Pope Francis’s encouragement to “gaze even
more attentively on mercy so that we may become a more effective sign of the
Father’s action in our lives.”

The Evangelium Vitae Award is accompanied by a $10,000 prize. Past winners include the Knights of Columbus
and the Sisters of Life.

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writes for Today’s Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

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