Divine Word Father Martin Padovani thanks those in attendance for their support and affirmation of his work as a counselor and priest as he receives the Lifetime Achievement Award during the annual Champions for Life awards dinner in Spring Lake Heights. Christina Leslie photos

Divine Word Father Martin Padovani thanks those in attendance for their support and affirmation of his work as a counselor and priest as he receives the Lifetime Achievement Award during the annual Champions for Life awards dinner in Spring Lake Heights. Christina Leslie photos

By Christina Leslie | Correspondent

Rachel Hendricks, a mother of five and longtime advocate for the unborn, delivered a call to action to the dozens of teens in the Spring Lake Heights banquet hall Oct. 28.

“Our Church needs you, and our communities need you,” she said during the 29th annual Champions for Life awards dinner held in Doolan’s Shore Club. “We need you to know that each of you is uniquely created by God in his likeness, that you are deeply loved and that God has a plan for you to build up a culture of life in your generation.”

Photo Gallery: Champions for Life 

The awards dinner, which drew more than 300 guests from throughout the Diocese, feted Hendricks, diocesan respect life coordinator, with its Champion for Life award, and bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award to Divine Word Father Martin Padovani, an author, counselor and psychologist marking 58 years as a priest.

The dinner was sponsored by the Mary’s Child Pro-Life Ministry, composed of volunteers from the Monmouth County parishes of St. Catharine-St. Margaret, Spring Lake; St. Denis, Manasquan; St. Mark, Sea Girt; St. Rose, Belmar; St. Teresa of Calcutta, Avon by the Sea, and Holy Innocents, Neptune.

A strong, youthful presence was evident from the moment teens ushered guests through open doors with a cheery, “Good evening, welcome, thanks for coming.” Others, all members of parish CYO groups and religious education programs, greeted guests with smiles at the registration table, then led them to the cocktail area. Teens from St. Mark Parish paused to explain their volunteerism with the ministry.

“I’ve always believed in the sanctity of life. I grew up in a strong Catholic family,” said Kaitlyn Hammond. “I’ve never thought twice about it.”

Molly Wierman expressed her admiration of the ministry, saying, “They do a great job of raising awareness for supporting life.”

Anthony Doria stood near the “Truth Booth,” a large electronic display that shows a fetus growing in its mother’s womb in striking four-dimensional images. “I will always fight for life. More kids should be attentive to the issue. If you look at this,” Doria continued, pointing toward the display, “how could you think it’s not a life?”

Mary Reilly, St. Mark youth minister and 2014 winner of the Champion for Life award, led the teen emcees through their presentations. “It is so important to get [the teens] involved in this and give them leadership roles,” she said.

Among the dignitaries addressing guests at the dinner was U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-Hamilton) who told the crowd, “Young people are the future of the pro-life movement. Through the grace of God and hard work, we pray for the day when, not if, children in the womb will be protected. The pro-life movement radiates the love of Christ.” Smith is the co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus.

Steve Kenny, president of Mary’s Child ministry, introduced award recipients Hendricks and Father Padovani, admitting the current political climate was increasingly contentious.

“In 2018, truth became under constant assault,” Kenny said. “Tonight ,we honor two people who do not hide the light of God under a bushel.”

Father Padovani thanked the assembly for their support and affirmation of his work as a counselor and weekend assistant in St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish for more than 25 years, and their prayers for him after he had suffered a stroke last year.

“Though society may have legalized abortion, the love of God will prevail,” Father Padovani said. “They have the power of the many, but we are stronger; we have Jesus Christ. There is no doubt in my mind: we are going to win this battle.”

In her acceptance speech, Hendricks credited the support of her coworkers and strong Catholic family roots, but cautioned much work lie ahead to clarity confusing societal mores on the sanctity of life to the youth of today.

“False messages about life and love surround us everywhere we go. This has caused an identity crisis among our young people. It’s hard for young people to discover their true work in such a confused and ‘throw-away’ society,” Hendricks said. “Abortion activists claim that a woman’s right to choose brings her opportunity and freedom, but we know abortion… leaves a wake of pain and suffering.”

Society needs to do better, the advocate continued.

“Young men, we need you to step up to protect and defend women and babies who have no protection,” Hendricks said. “Young women, we need you to recognize your beauty and your worth and to demand respect from those around you. We need you to build up a culture of life.”

Hendricks called the audience’s attention to a large oil painting of an angel cradling a tiny child, entitled “Escort to God,” which also was depicted on the cover of the event’s program booklet. Painted by Melissa Dayton, faith formation director in St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel, and mother of newly ordained priest, Father Christopher Dayton, it symbolizes the loss of a beloved child through miscarriage, regretted abortion or other form of infant death.

“For me, it offers hope and healing to grieving women and men… it is one of strength, comfort and hope, Hendricks said. “By virtue of our Baptism, we all have a responsibility to bring light into the darkness of this world. Your presence here tonight shows that you take this responsibility seriously.”