Pro-life supporters from across the diocese gathered on Jan. 11 to celebrate Mass and congratulate recipients of the Pro-Vita Award, which recognizes dedication to the sanctity of life.
Although a joyous occasion, the Mass also observed the 47th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in the United States, a reminder that although much work is being done, more is still needed.
"At this Mass we gather to remember a very sad day in the history of our nation, when the highest court in the land said that a life in the womb has no value, has no importance, has no potential and is just open up to the whims of human beings," said Father Charles Slisz, rector of St. Joseph Cathedral, who served as celebrant. "We know that this is a tragic, tragic thing, and you, especially working and praying all these many years that our nation would grow in its ability to understand the dignity, the importance and the value of every single human life from the very first moment of conception. So, we ask God to strengthen us in this Eucharist to be about this work, which is about life. God sent his Son so we could have eternal life, and that gift is promised to us at our conception. We pray that everyone will be able to see that life all the way through."
This year honored seven people for efforts in the pro-life cause.
Brandon Adkins, youth minster at St. John the Baptist Parish in Alden, knows firsthand the value of a pro-life advocate. His mother, at 20, unwed and pregnant, sought help from crisis pregnancy center. The child she was carrying was Brandon. "She went and got help, so she decided to give me life and that's why I'm pro-life," he said. That help came from Pam Turton, who is not the pro-life coordinator at St. John's. "Pam got (my mother) the help and support that she needed to make that choice to give life to her son."
Adkins, now 27, delivers a pro-life message to the teens with which he works. He said that despite receiving many differing messages from various sources, they are very receptive to the pro-life message. "We have a very active pro-life youth ministry. We have many young people from our school; eighth-graders and younger who go on the March for Life each year. Our group is huge, mostly of young people," he said.
Kathy Vukovich volunteers a couple days a week at St. Gianna Molla Pregnancy Outreach Center in Buffalo to offer support to those who may not have it otherwise. The idea that life begins at conception clicked for her when she became pregnant with her first child.
"I realized, oh my goodness, this is a baby. From the minute I knew it was a baby. As time went on, I started really paying attention, because I thought this is a child and I was just appalled that it's not thought of that way," she explained.
She got a study on end of life issues this past November, when her husband passed away from pancreatic cancer. "I saw first hand how difficult it is when facing that and how easy it is to say, 'Let's just end it,'" Vukovich said, reflecting. "I learned the graces of dying. He died gracefully, painfully but gracefully."
Diana Skotarczak recalled being pro-choice in her younger days, believing the "My Body, My Choice" perspective. After her daughter had an abortion, she became appalled at the notion.
"I realized the effect it has on people and I know how hard it is," she said. "As a mother, I carried around a lot of guilt because I was the mom and I was supposed to be the role model."
Her daughter died six years ago on Ash Wednesday. Skotarczak now sees her Lenten journey as trying to understand why God put her here.
Whereas most awardees gained recognition for their volunteer efforts, Kathleen Gallagher made a career out of it. The pro-life activities director for the New York State Catholic Conference has been battling legal policy for 36 years.
"It is such a blessing to be able to get up every morning and go to work knowing you're doing lifesaving work of Jesus Christ," she said.
A lot has changed, though not for better she added. Legislators no longer have time to sit to discuss best family-friendly policy, which is necessary to create good laws.
Also receiving awards were Deacon Timothy Chriswell, director of the permanent diaconate; Deacon Mike Ficorilli, who serves in the office of Pro-Life Activities; and Rick Suchan, executive director of the Foundation of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo.
A scheduling snafu prevented Bishop Edward Scharfenberger, apostolic administrator for the Diocese of Buffalo, from being present, but he congratulated the recipients and offered a sign of peace via a phone call.