The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities honored two pro-life leaders from the Archdiocese of Washington during the Diocesan Pro-Life Leadership Conference held in Phoenix, Arizona July 29 to Aug. 1.

Msgr. Joseph Ranieri, the archdiocese’s coordinator of pastoral care of priests, and Janice Benton, the executive director of the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, both received 2018 People of Life Awards. The third award was given posthumously to James Hanson, who served as president of the Patients’ Rights Action Fund, which promoted measures to protect patients’ rights and oppose assisted suicide.

The gift of presence

Msgr. Ranieri, who is 86, has been a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington for more than 60 years. For the past 10 of those years, he has worked closely with the archdiocese’s Project Rachel Ministry for women and men healing from emotional or spiritual pain after an abortion.

Julia Shelava, the director of Project Rachel for the archdiocese, first invited him to be a part of the ministry after hearing him preach at several Masses at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center.

“I could tell he had pastoral gifts through his preaching,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is the kind of priest we need in Project Rachel Ministry.’”

The ministry hosts 16-week support groups titled “An Experience of Hope” and “Entering Canaan” retreats, both of which Msgr. Ranieri has helped out with in different ways.

“I feel I am able to give – what I’m able to give is not unusual gifts. It is the gift of presence, the gift of patience, the gift of compassion,” he said. “That I know where they’re coming from. I’m there for them.”

Shelava noted that for her, what makes Msgr. Ranieri so special is “not what he says, but more how he is – his being, his presence.”

“He has impacted me with his humility, his great example of a humble, faithful priest,” she said. “He has really impacted the way I try to serve and minister to the women and men at Project Rachel Ministry.”

Part of Msgr. Ranieri’s demeanor that Shelava appreciates is how he attends support groups and retreats with the attitude that he is there to learn from the participants, and “I am in it with you, side by side.”

One of the women who worked with Msgr. Ranieri recalled how she had met him during a weekly support group at a time when she was feeling lost and alone.

“Msgr. Ranieri was amazing,” she said. “He listened and offered so much kindness and love over and over. It wasn’t just one time. He just didn’t seem to get tired.”

Msgr. Ranieri feels that forgiveness is the most important gift that he can give them. He is available for them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, but he also knows that even after they have gone to Confession, they often say, “I know God forgives me but I haven’t forgiven myself.”

It is in those circumstances that Msgr. Ranieri patiently listens to the women and their pain.

“…Msgr. Ranieri never gave up on me…he is committed to our healing and teaching us to forgive ourselves,” said the Project Rachel participant.

Shelava and Msgr. Ranieri noted the importance of having a priestly father figure for the women, whose image of a father is often broken. 

“Many of these women have had little to no relationship with their father and are quite abandoned by the father of their child or children,” said Shelava. “Here comes a good, holy, strong fatherly man who says, ‘You are worth it. You are worth coming here for these 16 weeks.’”

Msgr. Ranieri has also served on the national training team that provides support to dioceses around the country that run Project Rachel Ministries. As a team, they visit the different dioceses, and while they are there, Msgr. Ranieri gives a talk to the priests about what it is like to be involved in the ministry in a priestly capacity.

Often, he said the priests are anxious about saying the right thing in Confession or giving the right penance, but Msgr. Ranieri reassures them, saying, “The mere fact there is a priest with them, not to judge them, (but) to encourage, to be part of the process…that is a big, big help.”

In one talk he gave to priests, he told them, “The scary part is that we don’t have all the answers; there is no script, and that so often, it is just our presence with the ear of a patient and interested listener that is needed…Our tendency is to be there to ‘fix’ the problem, but the ‘fix’ is frequently in our patient presence mirroring God’s patience with each one of us.”

Affirming the Dignity of Everybody

Janice Benton has worked with people who have disabilities for pretty much as long as she can remember. Growing up, her best friend’s mom was in a wheelchair, and the three of them would frequently go on adventures together. Having friends and family members with disabilities is “what made the difference early on” in her passion for serving that community, she said.

“Jan Benton truly has spent her entire life – both her profession and her personal vocation – supporting and empowering persons living with disabilities to live fully their life in the Church,” said Mary O’Meara, the executive director of the Department of Special Needs Ministries for the Archdiocese of Washington. “…She truly embodies and lives her vocation in an everyday practical fashion that is inspiring to all those who are blessed to know her.”

During college, Benton volunteered in a nursing home, where she met a 27-year-old woman who had cerebral palsy. Her desire to learn why her young friend had to live there sparked her interest in the policy side of disabilities, so after college, she moved to Washington to work for the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities.

She was nominated to serve on the U.S. Bishops Advisory Committee on People with Disabilities, and two years later she helped with the process of turning that committee into the National Catholic Partnership on Disability (NCPD). Over the years, she served in several different capacities, before becoming the organization’s executive director in 2004.

“There is not an ounce about what you see when you meet Jan that is not really who she is,” said O’Meara. “Who you meet is who she is and what is reflected right back at you is the face of Christ.”

The role of NCPD, Benton said, is to help people with “any disability and any age, with anything that has to do with the life of faith, from being able to be born to natural death,” including things along the way like being able to physically get in the door of a church, receiving the sacraments, and being able to answer a call to a vocation.

This involves working with parishes to make them more accessible to both clergy and lay people, through things like wheelchair lifts at the altar. NCPD also helps to make catechetical resources that are adapted for people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, such as working with Loyola Press to develop adaptive kits for Reconciliation, First Communion, and Confirmation.

In 1995, NCPD published “Guidelines for the Celebration of Sacraments with Persons with Disabilities,” which has since been updated. This document aimed to solve discrepancies between dioceses in how people with disabilities were served by answering questions about things like what sort of communication devices are allowed in Confession and how to give the Eucharist through feeding tubes.

Benton said the joy of her work is “being able to see people engaged and involved, sharing their gifts – which are many.” Particularly, she is happy to see people with disabilities stepping up into leadership roles in their parishes and in their vocations.

“Being able to, in your daily work, affirm the dignity of everybody is a gift, really,” she said.

As the Church continues to affirm the dignity of everyone, Benton said her hope is that “we will stop separating people.”

“We are all part of the Body of Christ together, not separated as ‘us and them’ or ‘we and they,’” she said. “By virtue of Baptism, everyone belongs to the Church community.”

The opportunity to work with NCPD was “like wedding both my passions,” said Benton, because her faith has always been important to her. Outside of work, she is a secular Franciscan and a member of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring.

O’Meara recalled how Benton has dedicated her time to helping with St. Francis of Assisi Deaf Catholic Church in Landover Hills, which is the only Deaf third order Franciscan parish in the world. In addition to being a part of her own small group at St. Camillus, she has helped form and guide the group at St. Francis, which involved learning sign language.

“Her ability to sign just gave this group wings,” said O’Meara, who noted that she opened up the door for them to be able to participate in larger, regional meetings of third order Franciscans.

“All of that is because Jan kept saying, ‘Of course you can.’ There is never a time Jan would see a person with a disability of any kind and say, ‘No, let’s not try that,’ it is always ‘How will we try that?’” said O’Meara. “That has really given such life and depth to the group that worships here. What a beautiful thing to watch Jan interact and be a part of that.”