Building bridges between priests and pro-lifers
Fr. Frank Pavone
Priests for Life
Pontifical Council for the Family
The fruitfulness of the mission of the Church depends on the unity of
the Church. In a mission as urgent as the defense of human life, the unity
of the "People of Life" (Evangelium Vitae #79) is particularly crucial.
Nothing takes more human life than abortion. Approximately 60 million
human lives are destroyed each year around the world by this practice. In the
United States alone, the tragic toll is one life every twenty seconds. What
would the preaching of the Gospel mean if the Church were silent in the face of
such a tragedy? Where would the concrete expression of "love your neighbor" be
if the Church did not try to save these, her youngest neighbors?
The defense of life is a task of the whole Church. Priests have their
role and laity have theirs. The communication and collaboration between priests
and laity in the urgent and sensitive mission of fighting abortion can be a
One of the missions of the Priests for Life Association is to help build
bridges between priests and people who are particularly active in the movement
to end abortion. Since I became Director of Priests for Life in 1993, I have had
occasion to see some of the obstacles to this bridge-building, as well as some
of the solutions. Here I present a few of each.
Some of the obstacles
1. Waiting for each other. It is one thing to agree that abortion is
wrong and something must be done to stop it. It is quite another to reach a
common understanding about who makes the first move in organizing activities
directed to that purpose.
Many lay persons who are concerned about abortion are waiting for their
priest to take the first step to do something about it. They figure that since
he is the pastor, the one who "runs the parish," it is up to him to initiate all
the activities. If he believes someone can be helpful in carrying out those
activities, he will call upon them to get involved. If this does not happen,
many begin to wonder why..."Doesn't Father know about the issue? Doesn't he
At the same time, however, many priests are working from a different
understanding of how the parish functions. While it is true that they bear the
ultimate responsibility for parish activities, they do not thereby conclude that
they have to initiate everything. Rather, they have been trained that the laity
have their own gifts and mission bestowed on them by baptism and confirmation,
and are quite capable of proposing ideas, taking initiatives, and carrying out
activities. If lay persons do not come forward with ideas and proposals, the
pastor may begin wondering, "Don't my people know about the issue? Don't they
The result, at times, is that priest and people, equally concerned about
abortion, are waiting for and wondering about each other.
2. A Vacuum of Leadership. Another obstacle involves
what may be a vacuum of experienced, balanced, informed pro-life leadership
among the laity in a particular parish -- not that such people do not exist, but
that they have not been motivated, formed, and sent forth.
One does not have to have any particular qualifications in order to feel the
burden of the legal slaughter of thousands of innocent children every day.
People of all backgrounds, educational levels, and degrees of social status feel
It is natural, furthermore, that the more one realizes about the tragedy
of abortion, the more alarmed and angry one becomes, particularly when one also
sees the failure of government, media, and education to honestly and adequately
deal with the problem. One often feels pressed to choose between thinking that
he/she is crazy or that everyone else is. The pieces just don't fit; the whole
picture just doesn't make sense. Abortion is undeniably the taking of human
life, yet it is cloaked in such widespread denial. This is the kind of problem
which, once honestly faced, does not lend itself to leisurely solutions. It
arouses, instead, one's most basic sense of justice and most natural tendency to
protect the helpless. Abortion is an emergency and elicits an emergency
When, in the midst of this, one perceives (rightly or wrongly) that even
the Church is not responding in a manner consistent with justice and charity,
one's frustration level can reach immense proportions. Then, the one who often
becomes the target of the anger and frustration is the priest. He is, after all,
the symbol of all the Church should be. The expression of distress over abortion
can take the form of approaching the priest with demands which (rightly or
wrongly) he sees as unreasonable and annoying.
When priests have told me that some pro-life people in their parish are
like this, I have often gently pointed out that the best response is to take
responsibility for raising up professional pro-life leadership in the community.
Find people in the parish who have professional and organizational skills, good
judgment, and an ability to communicate effectively, and get them to feel the
burden for the pre-born. This is part of the challenge of the priesthood: to
stir into flame the gifts and call of the laity to shape a world in keeping with
the demands of justice. By raising up and training such leadership, the energy
of many others in the parish can be channeled in a productive and coordinated
3. What kind of issue and what kind of strategy? Another obstacle to
relations between priests and pro-lifers is a different perception of the
abortion issue itself -- not a disagreement that abortion is wrong, but a
different fundamental framework (or at least emphasis) by which the issue, and
its solution, is understood.
Is abortion primarily a political issue, or is it a Gospel issue? If the
priest sees it as a political issue, he may have reservations about addressing
it that will not be understood by someone who sees it simply as an issue of
"love your neighbor." If the parishioner sees it as a political issue, he may
only know how to propose politically oriented activities, which the pastor may
be more likely to reject.
The fact is that abortion is the intersection of many issues and many
dimensions of personal and societal life. In the Church, it can certainly be
presented as a matter of fundamental concern to the very heart of the Gospel.
Christ is Life and came to give Life. No Christian can be indifferent,
therefore, to what destroys life -- and again, nothing destroys more life than
It is quite possible to drastically reduce the incidence of abortion in a
community without a single reference to politics, parties, or platforms.
Instead, talk about persons: persons to whom we offer help in difficult
pregnancies, persons in the womb whose rights we uphold, persons who have had
abortion, whose wounds we offer to heal.
4. Media misrepresentation. A major obstacle is also
misperception of the pro-life movement itself. Anyone, including a priest,
who receives his primary information about the pro-life movement from the
media, is simply not receiving a balanced and accurate picture of what the
movement is. By relying on mass media, one gets the impression that the
dominant activities of the movement are street demonstrations, involving
people out of control and resorting to violence. This is a double
distortion. First of all, a minority of pro-life people even take part in
pro-life public demonstrations, and secondly, such demonstrations are
peaceful, prayerful, and about as harmless as a family picnic.
The majority of activity in the pro-life movement is actually the effort to
provide women in crisis pregnancy with life-giving alternatives. In every
community, pro-life people give their time, resources, and efforts to counseling
and providing for the emotional, educational, social, and financial needs of
women who, without such help, might abort their children.
5. The priest as a god. Jesus Christ is divine; His priests are not.
While people rightfully expect much from their priests, they also need to
realistically consider the many limitations and difficulties under which
priests labor. It is not any easier to raise a spiritual family than a
Some of the solutions.
1. Specify your expectations. It is normal to want a priest
to be "actively pro-life." But in formulating one's expectations (which later
translate into requests and, if not fulfilled, perhaps into complaints), it is
better to use descriptive language rather than evaluative language. In other
words, instead of saying, "I would like my priest to be more dedicated to
pro-life," think specifically of what activities or projects you would like him
to sponsor or get involved in. Is it giving a homily on the negative effects of
abortion, or putting an announcement in the bulletin about the local crisis
pregnancy center, or starting a pro-life committee in the parish?
Being very specific will then allow you and others to investigate what is
needed for a particular idea to become reality, and to determine whether what is
needed can be obtained and accomplished.
2. Listen. Nothing helps more to dispel mistaken notions
about people than to listen to them. Priests need to listen to the pro-life
leaders and activists of their community: what are their ideas, needs,
frustrations, experiences, and hopes? At the same time, pro-lifers need to
listen to their priest: what would he like to see the parish do for the
pro-life cause, what are his insights and experiences, what are his doubts
Sometimes people tell me their priest is not interested in the pro-life
cause. I ask how they concluded that. I am then told that the priest did not
respond to their request for a particular activity...but I am also told that the
request was made after Sunday Mass, while fifty other people were greeting the
priest, and the altar boys were asking him where to put the candles, and the
coach was asking for the key to the gym, and the next Mass was to start in ten
The pro-life cause is a crucial and central aspect of the Church's ministry.
It therefore deserves better treatment. Bridge-building between priests and
pro-lifers requires sitting down on Monday, not rushing by on Sunday.
3. Communicate. Priests for Life has prepared a brochure
entitled "How to Encourage your priest to be Actively Pro-life." Section
Five of that brochure contains the following suggestions about communicating
with the priest:
"Arrange a meeting between your priest and two or three active,
well-informed, pro-lifers of the parish. Use a humble approach that seeks to
educate rather than criticize. Do not take the approach "Father, you're not
doing your job." Rather, tell the priest you value his leadership, and
explain what motivates your own pro-life involvement. Bring him up to date
on the movement, and on practical possibilities for action. Stress that
people like you are ready to do the work involved in any project. Then leave
it in the priest's hands to choose a project from the things you mentioned,
or to come up with his own. Even if he does neither, you have educated him a
little more on the issue."
4. Experience local pro-life efforts first hand. Few
things are more helpful for the priest than to see the local pro-life effort in
action. For example, a visit to the local crisis pregnancy center by the parish
priest will help not only the center and the priest, but will assist women in
that parish who will become aware of the help available because of the fact that
the priest knows about it, has seen it, and is confident referring people to it.
Such centers may wish to host open houses for the clergy of the city.
5. Commission your pro-life group. Each
year, many parishes and schools hold commissioning services for various
ministerial groups: servers, catechists, choirs, and so forth. How about
commissioning the respect life group?
A suggested format would be to call the members forward
after the homily, ask them some questions, say a prayer of blessing, and present
them with a symbol of their mission.
Questions could be:
Are you resolved to promote the Church's teachings on the dignity of
human life, as outlined in The Gospel of Life?
Are you ready to work together with your pastor, under the guidance
of the Bishops' Pastoral Plan for Pro Life Activities, to pray, educate, shape
public policy, and provide concrete assistance to women in crisis pregnancies?
The prayer of blessing can be:
Father of all life, we thank you that you have called us into being
and made us the people of life. Bless our brothers and sisters who dedicate
themselves to be a voice for the voiceless, a defense for the defenseless. By
their example enable all of us to proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of
Life. We ask this through Christ our Lord.
The symbol given to members of the committee can be the Precious
Feet, the pro-life rose, or a copy of The Gospel of
Life. Such a ceremony could be done at any time of the year.
6. A Letter to My Priest. Priests for Life provides
a tool for lay persons who want to communicate their thoughts about pro-life
involvement but perhaps cannot find the words. We have provided a pamphlet
called A Letter to My Priest About the Abortion Crisis,
incorporating many of the suggestions included above. Write to us for free
Obviously, the obstacles and solutions pointed out above lie in the hands
of both priests and pro-lifers. Building bridges to strengthen the Church's
witness to life is a privileged work of Priests for Life and of all of us.
More than anything else, what has been evident to me is the heroism of so
many priests and laity throughout the world. People have and will continue
to put their resources, reputations, and very lives on the line to save the
preborn. This is nothing less than what we have been commanded, to lay down
our lives for one another. There, indeed, is the ultimate bridge-building.
Contact Priests for Life at PO Box 141172, Staten Island, NY 10314,
Tel. 888-PFL-3448, Fax 718-980-6515, Email email@example.com, Web site
Educational Materials on Abortion