Wearing royal blue T-shirts that proclaimed Catholic Advocacy Day, at least 2,000 Catholics from across Texas gathered March 26 in the rotunda of the Capitol in Austin praying the rosary and singing "Ave Maria."
The crowd swarmed the House and Senate on a beautiful spring day to talk with their state legislators about support for a plethora of bills, especially to protect life and improve school education.
State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, the new Speaker of the House, who is a parishioner at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Angleton, met with bishops from across the state and also gave a personal tour of his office and home to his constituents.
Father Victor Perez, pastor of Most Holy Trinity, represented the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in welcoming the crowd at the rally on the steps of the Capitol along with bishops from across the state, as Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo continued to recuperate from a mild stroke and Auxiliary Bishop George A. Sheltz was busy taking care of daily operations at the archdiocese.
"I'm here on behalf of Cardinal DiNardo. He's doing great, much better," Father Perez told the crowd. "Thank you all for your prayers and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ."
During the rally, where Texas bishops greeted their delegations and offered words of encouragement, hundreds waved signs supporting Catholic health care rights, immigration, education and other policy issues.
Bishop Patrick J. Zurek of Amarillo, on behalf of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, testified the day before Catholic Advocacy Day on behalf of H.B. 16, a House bill requiring babies be given medical care if born alive after a "failed" abortion. Doctors could be fined if they fail to provide medical treatment when the fetus lives through the procedure.
"Regardless of the circumstances of his or her birth, any baby merely by virtue of being born is a legally recognized person. Under this bill, he or she must be treated like any other premature infant and given medical care appropriate to his or her age and needs. Actively or passively killing these newborns is infanticide and should be condemned by all people," Bishop Zurek said.
Julie Fritsch, director of the of Galveston-Houston Archdiocese's Office of Pro-Life Activities, said she wanted to stay positive despite House Democrats boycotting that committee hearing in an attempt to block debate on H.B. 16.
"I definitely want to be positive. People had so much energy and enthusiasm to stand up for what we believe as Christians," Fritsch said. "We're so divided as a country and even as Catholics at times, that speaking with one voice and standing together with our bishops can't help but make an impact on our legislators and we bring that energy back into the parish communities."
Newly ordained Deacon Fernando Garcia, pastoral minister for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston's Special Youth Services, said this was his first time participating in Catholic Advocacy Day.
"This was eye-opening for me," he told the Texas Catholic Herald, Galveston-Houston's archdiocesan newspaper. Of special interest, he said, was a bill that would raise the age of children being considered adults in criminal cases from 17 to 18.
"This would directly impact the kids we serve. Many of them are first-time offenders at age 17 and are already being considered adults with a record that stays with them for life," Deacon Garcia said.
He, along with fellow Deacon Dan Gilbert and Alejandra Maya, associate director of Special Youth Services that offer spiritual care and advocacy for at-risk youth in local juvenile justice centers, met with staff of Rep. Gene Wu's office, whose district represents southwest Houston.
Maya said, "We were also supporting education bills to raise the reading levels of students and prevent dropouts to help at-risk youths before they get in trouble with crime."
Before the rally, the student choir from Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic School in Richwood sang on the steps outside the Capitol as well as inside under the dome. A memorable moment was when Bonnen recognized the third- through eighth-graders on the House floor. After the session, he called them up where they took turns banging his gavel.
Groups of high school students participated in mock legislative hearings and educational forums as part of Catholic Advocacy Day. They also toured the Capitol to learn more about the Texas legislative system and the state's history.
However, such advocacy is not just a one-day duty. Rhonda Sepulveda, the Galveston-Houston archdiocesan Catholic Charities' parish social ministry coordinator, is among many who have traveled to Austin several times to testify at legislative committee hearings.
"Catholic Advocacy Day helps us illustrate our mission, what our work does in caring for our neighbors and who we are as people of faith," Sepulveda said.
Jennifer Allmon, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops, one of the main organizers, said: "This year's Advocacy Day was one of our best yet! I've heard great feedback from legislators, staff and diocesan participants."
Before Catholic Advocacy Day, there had not been major movement on some of the pro-life and education bills.
But afterward, "we had hearings set for our priority pro-life bills, had our private school student protection bills voted out of committee in the Senate and scheduled for hearing in the House, and got an increase in funding for the Abortion Alternatives program in the floor debate on the budget," Allmon said.
But she reminded advocates that 50-plus days remained in this legislative session and there was more work to do.
Jo Ann Zuniga is on the staff of the Texas Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.