PHOENIX (CNS) — 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 conference took place just days before Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say the death penalty is “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

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


The theme of the July 29-Aug. 1 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.

Deacon Omar Gutierrez, director of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith office for the Archdiocese of Omaha, Nebraska, attended the conference alongside three others from that state. Deacon Gutierrez 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,” Deacon Gutierrez said. “Trying to be authentically pro-life in so many different ways, standing up for the other life issues.” (About two weeks later Nebraska executed its first death-row prisoner in 21 years, convicted murderer Cary Dean Moore, despite Catholic and other faith groups calling on Ricketts to commute Moore’s sentence to life without the possibility of parole.)

A recent legislative effort to legalize assisted suicide in Nebraska was successfully blocked, the deacon added.

Another speaker was Sister Suzanne Gross, a Franciscan Sister of the Eucharist, who is program coordinator for the pro-life ministry for the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut.

She talked about 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,” Sister Gross said. “Every year they say it’s going to happen.”

The annual pro-life directors’ conference is an opportunity to learn from other leaders, she told The Catholic Sun, Phoenix’s diocesan newspaper. “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,” Jerry 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 Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted.

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,” the bishop said in his homily.

He said the 50th anniversary of “Humanae Vitae,” Blessed Paul VI’s encyclical, 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 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-life Activities on Catholics who have answered the call outlined by St. John Paul II in “The Gospel of Life” (“Evangelium Vitae”). The winners have demonstrated a lifetime of devotion to the pro-life cause and the promotion of the culture 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. He also is an active member of the Project Rachel Ministry National Training Team for the USCCB.

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 Dec. 30, 2017, from brain cancer.


Coronel is a staff reporter at The Catholic Sun, newspaper of the Diocese of Phoenix.