AVON – Shortly after Archbishop Henry J. Mansell urged people to stand up for religious freedom last February, members of St. Ann Parish formed a ministry to do just that.
The parish’s Defenders of Faith Ministry, which for months has been working to educate parishioners about where their faith intersects with the public arena, plans a 24-hour eucharistic prayer vigil beginning on Election Day eve.
"The whole purpose of our group is to make sure that we put the Catholic position in front of people and that they form their consciences in the proper way, so that when they do get to the voting booth, they understand the Church’s position," said Father John W. McHugh, pastor.
"Of course, once anybody goes into the voting booth, they’re on their own," he went on. "We’re not telling anyone how to vote. We’re not supporting any particular position. We’re very clear on that point: that we should not endorse any candidate whatsoever."
At least one other parish in the Archdiocese of Hartford has started a similar ministry. St. Catherine of Siena Parish in West Simsbury’s Defenders of the Faith Ministry had its inaugural meeting on Oct. 16.
"We’re going to educate our parishioners to federal and state mandates and laws that will have an impact, positively or negatively, on the Church and on the faith," said Father Michael Whyte, pastor. "And then we’re going to encourage our parishioners to dialogue with their elected and appointed officials, and let them know how we, as Catholics and as voting members of the community, feel about them."
Father McHugh said the Defenders ministry at St. Ann’s disseminates informational materials that are available from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and/or from the Connecticut Catholic Public Affairs Conference.
The intention of the pre-election prayer vigil is "to pray for religious freedom and for the people of this great nation, that they may elect officials who will respect virtue and religion and execute our laws in justice and mercy, and to pray that this great land will always be ‘one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,’" according to a flier advertising it.
The prayer vigil will begin after the 9 a.m. Mass on Nov. 5 and end at 9 a.m. on Election Day.
Father Whyte said the Defenders group is one of three new ministries starting at St. Catherine in conjunction with the Year of Faith that began Oct. 11.The purpose of the second ministry is to explain why Catholics believe what they do; the third is geared toward welcoming back fallen-away or lapsed Catholics.
Father Whyte said the Defenders ministry at St. Catherine will examine issues of concern to Catholics on the municipal, state and national level. He added that the group also will work with people from other faiths in the area "so that it’s not just a Catholic complaint."
Like priests at parishes throughout the archdiocese, Fathers McHugh and Whyte were quick to preach about the need to defend religious liberty after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services imposed a mandate in January on health insurance plans requiring all employers, with a few small exceptions, to pay for health coverage that covers sterilization, pills that induce abortion, and contraception.