OMAHA (SNR) - This year’s annual Nebraska Pro-Life Conference is a bit different because it is being co-sponsored by the Bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities of the Nebraska Catholic Conference and Human Life International (HLI), a Catholic apostolate that "defends the authentic rights and dignity of every human being from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death."
Featuring both national and local speakers, the conference will be held Friday and Saturday, Oct. 18 and 19, at the Ramada Plaza in Omaha. Once again, the Knights of Columbus are the major underwriters.
The theme is, "Life, Dignity & Disability: A Faith that Welcomes."
Greg Schleppenbach, state director of the Nebraska Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-life Activities, said that another "little sliver" of the conference will be offered at a pro-life banquet and information fair in Kearney Sunday, Oct. 20. Father Shenan Boquet, HLI president, will stay in Nebraska an extra day to deliver that keynote address.
Schleppenbach acknowledged that the focus on disabilities is a new one for this annual conference, but the pro-life message is a strong one.
"It’s very much in line with our pastoral plan’s focus on human dignity," he said. "It’s oftentimes the advocates of euthanasia or suicide who view people with disabilities as lives that are not worth living."
The Nebraska conference will begin Friday with a 4:30 p.m. social hour with Nebraska’s three bishops, followed by a banquet at 6 p.m. Three students will read their winning entries from the annual pro-life essay contests, and the Gospel of Life Award will be given to three outstanding pro-life leaders, one from each diocese. Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln will deliver the keynote address: "Fulfilling Your Prophetic Mission in Our Secular World."
Saturday’s events will start at 8:30 a.m. with Mass celebrated by Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha.
Father Boquet will deliver the first talk of the day, "In Divine Likeness He Created Them." A priest of the Houma- Thibodaux (Louisiana) Diocese, he has given hundreds of talks on the dignity of the human person.
Afterward, there will be two sets of breakout sessions, with lunch in between. The breakouts are something new for the Nebraska conference.
"That allows us to have the more particular focus on the disabilities issue, but also the typical topics that we normally have," Schleppenbach explained.
Breakout sessions will cover the latest policy trends, compassionate responses to difficult prenatal diagnoses, end-of-life care, threats to human dignity, and parenting a child with disabilities.
Later in the afternoon, author and professor of philosophy Peter Kreeft will speak on, "Why Does God Will That We Suffer Disabilities?" He will be followed by Joseph Pearce, editor of St. Austin Review, who will give the final talk of the day: "Joyful Suffering with the Missionaries of the Poor."
Schleppenbach said the topics will help conference attendees understand the dignity of those who have disabilities. He recalled a story about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta encountering a family who had a special needs child whom they called "the Professor of Love" because he never stopped teaching them how to love.
"If we can accomplish that in this conference, we’ve really accomplished something important," Schleppenbach said. "There’s so much for us to love about those with special needs."
Sarah Schinstock of St. Teresa Parish in Lincoln agreed.
"God has a plan for every person, every soul," she stressed. "If we, as Catholic Christians, proclaim to be pro-life, we must look through the eyes of God at every life, the elderly who are so often overlooked, the baby born with Down syndrome, the 4-year old diagnosed with autism, the high school teen who still isn’t potty-trained, the mentally handicapped."
She and her husband, Jeff, who serves as director of youth ministry for the Diocese of Lincoln, will present the breakout session on parenting a child with disabilities during the conference.
As a young couple, the Schinstocks developed a friendship with an elderly man who was disabled. He frequently visited the Newman Center at Wichita State University, where they were both employed shortly before they were married.
"He showed us the way to overcome our prejudices, our human reactions to the unknown… and love him," Mrs. Schinstock said.
The couple grew to love and understand the gentleman. They invited him to their wedding, where he danced with the new Mrs. Schinstock, despite his wheelchair, and presented the couple with his handmade gift for them: their wedding invitation, matted and framed.
"It still hangs on our wall," Mr. Schinstock said.
Little did the couple know how valuable that friendship would be when, years later, they were told their oldest child, Regina Maria, has severe autism.
"The label hit us like a ton of bricks," Mrs. Schinstock recalled.
A myraid of emotions left them barely able to speak. But as soon as they left the consultation with the doctor and laid eyes on their precious little girl, they realized there ‘was no scary autistic monster.’ Just like they had been able to see the dignity of their elderly, wheelchair-bound friend—not a disability—they looked upon their daughter as a beautiful human being—not a diagnosis.
The title of their talk, "Love at First Sight: A Parenting Journey" is based on Mr. Schinstock’s reaction to Regina’s birth.
"The moment I saw her, I was more than smitten. I was totally in love," he remembered. "I pledged myself to her protection that very moment. This was my strength through her struggles and her diagnosis. It remains my strength today."
During their breakout session, the Schinstocks will speak openly and honestly about the struggles that they have encountered because of Regina’s disabilities, as well as the joys and happiness that Regina brings to the whole family – which now includes three younger sons and two more daughters.
"We find that Regina provides a spiritual element to our family that may not exist if she were not here with us," explained Mrs. Schinstock. "She is very close to the Blessed Mother. She develops in all of us the virtues we need to care for her."
Schleppenbach said that HLI initiated the theme for this year’s conference, as well as the joint effort.
"They have instituted this traveling conference in the last few years," he explained.
Some time ago, HLI representatives contacted the Respect Life Office in the Omaha Archdiocese about bringing their conference to Omaha this October. Naturally, there was a great opportunity to collaborate with the annual Nebraska conference.
While the conference has been moved to Omaha for 2013, the Kearney event on Sunday gives more pro-life people who live in central and western Nebraska the opportunity to delve into the issues of disabilities and human dignity. It is hosted by A Better Way for Kearney, a pro-life group that organized in response to Planned Parenthood’s attempt to put a facility in their community.
"I am thrilled they are doing their own conference," Schleppenbach said. "It’s the kind of thing that can generate enthusiasm and inspiration for pro-life efforts."
All are invited to attend the Nebraska conference. The cost for the main conference alone is $35 per person, and the cost for the Omaha banquet alone is $40, with a fee of only $65 for those who plan to attend both. There are discounts for priests and religious. To register, visit www.nebcathcon.org, or call (402) 477-7517.
To reserve a seat at the Kearney pro-life information fair and banquet Oct. 20, call (308) 293-9099.
Mrs. Schinstock summarized what any pro-life person can take away from these events.
"With each of these lives comes a great gift, a gift offered by God to us," she said. "Being pro-life includes recognizing the beauty of those with disabilities."