Diocese of St. Augustine Hosts 33rd Annual Florida Respect Life Conference
October 18, 2019 •

By Savanna Kearney and Jean Gonzalez/Florida Catholic

Hundreds gathered from across the state of Florida to St. Augustine to attend this year’s State Respect Life Conference. The event kicked off Friday, Oct. 11 at the Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche with a Mass celebrated by Bishop William Wack of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, followed by a talk abou the heart of Mary from Dr. Mary Soha, pediatrician, author, and vice-postulator for the cause of Antonion Cuipa and companions, the Martyrs of La Florida.

The conference continued through Saturday, with Bishop Wack giving the keynote address to start. He urged pro-life advocates to follow the example of Mary “by pondering, by reflecting, by quieting ourselves” to hear God’s voice. 

“When God speaks to us, it is a voice that speaks of peace,” said Bishop Wack. “With the world raging all around us, with everyone taking sides and arming themselves against those who do not believe in what they believe, there is so much outrage, acrimony, people would do well to know how much God loves us. And we do that by doing what Mary did.”

Robert Raspa, a family physician at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, gave a presentation titled, “The Pill Reversal.” Following this, Modesto Sanchez-Torres, chief diagnostic radiologist at Florida Medical Center, spoke about how an ultrasound is a “window to the womb.” At the same time, in a separate track, Ron Wright, Jr., an exonerated death row survivor and a member of Witness to Innocence, gave a presentation on the death penalty.

Another speaker at the conference was Vincent Rue, co-director of the Alliance for Post-Abortion Research and Trauma and founder of the Institute of Pregnancy Loss. He presented on post-abortion healing, the bond between mother and child, the different types of attachment that children experience towards their parents, and the alarming lack of influence that church members and pro-life counselors have in a women’s decision to carry out or terminate her pregnancy.

“A mother’s heart transcends time and space and even death,” said Dr. Rue. “There is an unyielding bond of attachment in spite of any hurt or loss.”

After lunch, the conference reconvened with Star Parker, founder and president of the Center for Urban Renewal and Education. She shared her testimony of conversion to a more holy and pro-life lifestyle.

“Abortion is hurting us,” she said. “This is not a good place for our society to be. We are lost – killing what God called his reward.”

Other pro-life topics besides abortion were discussed, including a talk on physician-assisted suicide (or PAS) by the diocese’s very own Father Leonard Chuwa, system director of Formation at Ascension St. Vincent Hospital. He discussed the dangers of making PAS legal, such as how it reduces human life into means to an end other than itself and promotes a culture of death.

“Physician-assisted suicide reduces human life into a disposable commodity,” said Father Chuwa. “It is the ultimate victimization of the victim.”

He also touched on how PAS is incompatible with the physician’s role as healer, and how death comes from God alone.

“Death with dignity is dying when and how God wants you to come back to him,” he said. “Playing God by killing causes pain for the entire human race.”

The last talks of the evening were Tracy Windsor speaking on the ministry she founded and directs, Be Not Afraid, which helps families who go through a difficult prenatal diagnosis. At the same time, Ruby Peters, Catholic Charities social justice liaison for the diocese, presented on human trafficking – how shockingly present it is, and how to prevent it and assist those who experience it.

During the main conference, a separate youth Respect Life Leadership Training was held in the St. Anthony Parish Hall, which included various pro-life speakers and a concert by Sean Forrest, founder and president of the charity Haiti180. Nearly 70 young people attended.

The event culminated with a Mass celebrated by Bishop Felipe Estévez, followed by a dinner with Michael Sheedy, executive director of FCCB and Montfort Father Hugh Gillespie, where the Respect Life Volunteer of the Year was awarded to Filomena Smolenski from St. Madeleine Parish in High Springs.