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Mike Pence at Catholic conference: ‘God is not done with America yet’

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Speaking to hundreds of influential Catholic leaders gathered this week in California wine country, former vice president and current GOP presidential candidate Mike Pence on Thursday challenged “deeply committed” lay Catholics to “boldly live out their faith in the public square,” adding: “God is not done with America yet.”

“It’s never been more important for the sake of our kids and our family, our future, for you to leave here with a burden on your hearts to speak out,” Pence told participants of the Napa Institute’s annual summer conference, held at the Meritage Resort and Spa in Napa.

“The priests and the bishops and monsignors who are here will lead the way [in] churches across this country. But I must tell you, they’d be the first to tell you that we need the American people to step up, because I really do believe with all of my heart that the foundation of America is freedom. But the foundation of freedom is faith,” he said.

“Now more than ever, we need people of faith and people in the Catholic community all across this country to step up and give voice to your values.”

Pence’s 35-minute address on the role of faith in public life was one of the headline events at the nonprofit Napa Institute’s 13th annual summer conference, which brings together “Catholic leaders, clergy, and changemakers” for a week of speeches, spiritual enrichment, wine tastings, and other activities.

“Napa equips and empowers leaders of faith to live out authentic Catholicism in a world that views us as contrarian,” according to its website. “We ensure lay apostolates not only know what the Church teaches, but know how to meaningfully defend why the Church teaches what she does.”

The theme of this year’s conference, which cost $2,800 a ticket for non-clergy, is “What We Need Now: Renewing God’s Presence in Our Lives, in Our Church, and in Our Culture.” More than 800 people registered this year.

Leaving the Catholic Church

In this early but critical stage of the 2024 presidential campaign, Pence currently trails his former boss Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by a wide margin, drawing a national polling average of just 5.2%, according to RealClearPolitics.

Deeply pro-life, pro-business, and pro-military, he brings solid conservative credentials to the field as well as 20 years of experience in public life, first as an Indiana congressman and governor and most recently as vice president.

“I’m proud of what we accomplished during the four years of the Trump-Pence administration,” Pence said Thursday. “We achieved the lowest unemployment, the highest household income, the most energy production, the most pro-American trade deals, the most secure border, and we made the strongest military in the history of the world stronger than ever before.”

Pence also touted his role in what he called “the most pro-life administration in American history,” highlighted by the appointment of three conservative justices to the U.S. Supreme Court who joined last year’s historic abortion decision that overturned Roe v. Wade.

In his speech, Pence drew applause for his advocacy of a national 15-week abortion ban and a proposal to ban gender-transition procedures on minors.

But his decision as a younger man to leave the Catholic Church to embrace evangelical Protestantism remains a sore point for some in the standing-room-only ballroom Thursday afternoon.

“I cherish my Catholic upbringing. I truly do,” he said, pointing to his parents’ devotion to their faith, the years he and his three brothers served as altar boys at their parish, St. Columba’s, and the eight years he spent in parochial school, joking that “I’ve got the scars on my knuckles to prove it.”

Yet in his teenage years, he said, he became “an agnostic at best,” adopting the view that religion was for those who “needed a crutch in their lives.”

His outlook changed dramatically one “rainy night” at a Christian music festival at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky — the same college that garnered widespread media attention earlier this year for a multi-day prayer service linked to numerous conversions.

“It was like I heard the words for the first time, ‘God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, that whoever might believe in him might not perish, but have everlasting life,’” he said, citing John 3:16. “And it was on that night, not out of a sense of just intellectual agreement, but because my heart was literally broken for what had been done for me on the cross, that I made a decision to put my faith in Christ. And that faith in my youth became my own.”

Pence and his wife, Karen, who were married in a Catholic church, didn’t officially join an evangelical church until sometime later. The couple has three grown children: one daughter is a lawyer, another is a published author, and their son is a Marine Corps fighter pilot who will head to “Top Gun” training in the fall.

Pence also shared his experience of meeting Pope Francis while he was vice president. The pope presented him with a rosary, explaining that it was “for your mother.”

“My mom prayed that rosary every single day. What a blessing,” Pence said.

A call to speak out

Returning to his theme, Pence urged his audience not to be discouraged by the way they see the culture around them growing increasingly secular and hostile to religious belief.

“Times like this, it’s easy to feel powerless,” he said. “But I must tell you, it’s important to remember in this time where we see a culture walking away from the timeless values of our faith, if God is for us, who can be against us?”

He said he remains convinced that the “vast majority of Americans” still cherish the sanctity of life, marriage, and traditional values.

“I believe the greatest threat we face is not the strength of those who oppose us,” he said. “It’s the inadequacy of our beliefs, the danger of our own indifference, believing the lie that we can’t make a difference or we’re just one voice.”

“Leaving here from the Napa Institute, you have an opportunity to go forth, speak out, and you’ll watch people rally to your cause,” he said.

“We cannot be afraid of the truth when it comes to the public square,” he concluded. “Let us leave here with a prayer that we will have courage to resist what is popular and embrace timeless principles and values that will speak boldly and truthfully, but with love, to our fellow Americans.”

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Mike Pence at Catholic conference: ‘God is not done with America yet’