Catholics from throughout the state of Maryland gathered in Annapolis on Feb. 22 to meet with their legislators and discuss issues of importance for Catholics in this year’s General Assembly. Among the hundreds of people who attended the annual “Catholics in Annapolis” gathering was a group from districts 39 and 19 in Maryland, including parishioners of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Derwood, St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, and Mother Seton Parish in Germantown.

Mike Duggan, a parishioner of St. John Neumann Parish in Gaithersburg, said he was attending the event because he felt a need “to play a small part in improving life in Maryland.”

Prior to their meetings, the participants gathered at St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Annapolis for a briefing from the Maryland Catholic Conference. The four issues that they emphasized this year were the expansion of the fetal homicide law, funding for the Broadening Options and Opportunities for Students Today (BOOST) program, the regulation of foreign labor contractors, and increased rates for behavioral health services.

“These kinds of social justice issues have always been a part of my faith,” said Janet Prouty, also a parishioner of St. John Neumann Parish. “My understanding of the dignity of the human person has come from my Catholic faith, and all these other issues flow from that.”

Prouty said this year she felt especially strongly about the bill regarding the regulation of foreign labor contractors (SB 526/HB 1493), which would require an individual to be licensed by the Commissioner of Labor and Industry before the individual could perform a foreign labor contracting service in the state.

Many workers who come to Maryland under work visa programs are vulnerable to exploitation in their workplaces, so the Maryland Catholic Conference supports this bill because it would likely reduce human trafficking in the state.

Tony Bosnick, the social concerns minister at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Derwood, has been attending the event for more than 20 years, and said he does so because, “I think the intersection of pubic policy and faith is really important.”

“All across the board on these issues, the Catholic perspective is a life-giving perspective,” he said, noting how the principles of Catholic social teaching can inform legislation. “All these things elevate us as people and bring so much good to society.”

In addition to working at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Bosnick teaches part-time at Mother of God School in Gaithersburg, which he noted has a large immigrant population of students who benefit from the BOOST program in Maryland.

“They are beautiful kids in so many ways,” he said. “…Their parents are really struggling to give them a good education. BOOST will really help them.”

The BOOST program provides scholarships for low-income students to attend a non-public school of their choice. During the 2017 legislative session, the Maryland legislature increased program funding from $5 million to $6 million for scholarships. For the upcoming school year, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan has proposed to increase BOOST funding to $9 million.

During their meeting with Senator Nancy King, who represents District 39 in Montgomery County, the group noted their support for increased behavioral health provider rates, which would help provide behavioral health care services to the more than one million Marylanders who need them. This funding would go toward things like treatment of mental health and substance use disorders, which the group said they have seen a large need for in their community as a result of the opioid epidemic.

Father John Dillon, the pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, said in the past year their parish has held three funerals for young men who have overdosed on opioids.

“As a pastor, it is devastating to see,” he said.

The group also met with Delegate Benjamin Kramer, who represents District 19 in Montgomery County, and discussed these issues, along with the fetal homicide law. That law currently makes it a crime to kill a viable fetus as the result of an attack on a pregnant woman, and a fetus is considered viable around 24 weeks of pregnancy. The current bill (SB 533/HB 748) would expand the law to also make it a crime to kill a fetus before 24 weeks of pregnancy as a result of an attack on a pregnant woman.

The Maryland Catholic Conference said they support this bill because they believe this legislation would act as a possible deterrent to future violent crimes against pregnant women.

Marie Yeast, the administrative assistant at St. Francis of Assisi Parish, said she was motivated to attend Catholics in Annapolis because of what she learned from her father, who was an immigrant from the Azores Islands off the coast of Portugal. 

Yeast said her father really valued being a citizen of the United States, and told her to always make sure she votes, “because you have the freedom to do that.” Because of that foundation, she said she tries not to take her ability to vote for granted, which includes researching issues and participating in the legislative process.

Following the meetings with individual legislators, the participants joined back together for a reception, which included Maryland legislators and bishops.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, spoke to the participants about how he increasingly looks out from the pulpit to see “the face of the world,” with so people from many different cultures sitting in the pews.

“Each one enriches us,” he said, adding that it also “reminds us of the need to be welcoming” in the state of Maryland.

Cardinal Wuerl noted the rainy weather of the evening, and said when he arrived to the event and prepared to step out of his car, Jenn Briemann, the deputy director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, was there waiting for him with an umbrella.

“Tonight, this building is filled with committed people,” he said. “Even if we have to go through a few rain drops, it is worth it.”

Baltimore Archbishop William Lori spoke about his desire to “change the narrative about Baltimore,” which he said is “often portrayed as nothing but negative…but has many stories of grace and goodness.”

An example of this, he said is their urban Catholic schools, which “open the doors to a much brighter future for young people, their families, and our city.”

One of these schools is Cardinal Sheehan School, which has been in the national spotlight recently after a video of the school’s choir singing Andra Day’s “Rise Up” went viral, reaching more than 50 million views. Since then, the choir has been featured on Good Morning America and The View, and on Feb. 22 joined Catholics in Annapolis to sing.

The choir dedicated their closing song, “Rise Up” to Senator James E. DeGrange Sr. (D-District 32), thanking him for creating and supporting the BOOST program, which many students at Cardinal Sheehan School benefit from.

“Because of you, students have the opportunity to rise up and reach our dreams,” said a student in the choir. “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

Senator DeGrange is retiring at the end of the legislative session, and Archbishop Lori presented him with an Archdiocese of Baltimore Medal of Honor “for his outstanding service to all Marylanders and for his commitment to upholding his faith in the public square.”

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. noted that Senator DeGrange attends Mass daily before going to work, and joked that it is the reason why they give him all the difficult jobs. He also addressed the participants in Catholics in Annapolis, telling them, “the real heroes are you people right here. You are doing the Lord’s work on Earth.”