I recently received a letter that begins,
"Dear Fr. Frank,
I have recently been told that a certain priest does not mention abortion because he is afraid of offending someone in the congregation. Just the thought of that puts a twist in my stomach and pain in my heart. I can't help think that if I had heard in Church that abortion is wrong, that almost twenty years ago now I might have chosen to keep my baby instead of killing my baby."
Many priests are actively and heroically involved in the pro-life movement. Yet numerous people across our nation can probably write this sad letter. The grief of abortion is accompanied by the plea, "If only I had known; if only somebody had warned me!" This letter points to the responsibility of the priest to address the abortion issue clearly and consistently. It points to the thirst of his congregation for the knowledge of God's commands and for the strong, loving hand of a shepherd who will lead the way.
That’s why priests are ordained. That’s also why "Priests for Life" was established. In 1990, Fr. Lee Kaylor of the Archdiocese of San Francisco saw the need to establish a strong network among priests who were actively preaching and teaching about the pro-life issues. He reasoned that priests need each other for mutual support, encouragement, and sharing of ideas, especially in dealing with abortion, contraception, and euthanasia. He also saw that a formal association of such priests could provide the spark needed for other priests to more actively address these issues. By the spring of 1991, Priests for Life had received official approval as a private association from Archbishop John Quinn.
A national newsletter was established, and small groups of priests began to gather in various dioceses to pray and speak together about pro-life issues.
In the summer of 1993, the original officers completed their terms and new leaders were chosen. My bishop, John Cardinal O’Connor, gave me permission to be the National Director of Priests for Life on a full-time basis. Father James Heyd of Chicago received permission from Joseph Cardinal Bernardin to be an associate Director and Coordinator of the Midwest Region. In 1995, Fr. Richard Hogan of St. Paul, Minnesota, received permission from Archbishop John Roach to serve Priests for Life on a full-time basis as Associate Director.
Roger Cardinal Mahony, in April of 1994, wrote, "I am very pleased...as the Chairman of the NCCB Pro-Life Committee...to offer my own approval and endorsement of Priests for Life...I know of no other work in the Church today that so clamors for the active, visible, and vocal involvement of the priests of our nation than Priests for Life."
The point of "Priests for Life" is not to imply that some priests are called to be actively pro-life and others are not. We are not trying to let priests off the hook! The point is just the opposite. "Priests for Life" means that to be a priest means to stand for life, to defend the dignity and sanctity of human life. This is an essential aspect of priesthood. No priest is exempt. Priests for Life seeks to help all priests grow in this aspect of their ministry.
Let’s think again of the letter I received from the woman who had an abortion. Twenty years ago, she was caught by the lies of the abortion industry. The priest is called to save the women who are in the same situation today. He is to save them by telling them the truth about abortion, about the life within them, and about the obligations we all have to that life. The priest, as "another Christ," is called to intervene for the baby. Christ always sought the weak, the defenseless, and the "little ones." So must the priest. The priest is called to declare the sins of the society he is in (See Is. 58:1). He is also called to activate and encourage the laity in their pro-life mission.
Encouraging both priests and laity in pro-life work has been the constant activity of Priests for Life. As National Director, I have traveled to each of the 50 states, meeting with bishops, priests, deacons, and seminarians, and speaking to them about the unique opportunity we have as a Church to turn the abortion tragedy around. Imagine the vast structure of the Catholic Church in the United States! We have over 19,000 parishes, over 9000 schools, and 50,000 priests. If those priests can infuse that vast structure with clear, vigorous, and compassionate pro-life teaching and action, things would be vastly different. Dr. Bernard Nathanson, the pro-life advocate who was once an engineer of the abortion movement, has told priests, "We would never have gotten away with what we did if you had been united, purposeful, and strong."
How, then, do we reach the priests? First of all, the Priests for Life newsletter now reaches about 30,000 priests all over the country. It is distributed primarily through the Respect Life Offices of 130 dioceses. Every day, responses come in from priests who want to join up and receive more ideas about what they can do. Homily material, practical ideas for action, bulletin inserts, and answers to specific questions are regularly sent to thousands of priests who have requested them. Priests for Life offers clergy seminars, retreats, and workshops all over the country and even internationally. Our Associate Director, Fr. Richard Hogan, assists in this work. In various cities, there are Priests for Life "Chapters" where priests gather regularly for prayer, discussion, and encouragement on pro-life issues.
Mother Teresa has strongly endorsed the work of Priests for Life as a result of a series of meetings I had with her in Calcutta. She encourages all priests to speak out in defense of life. At her personal request Priests for Life distributes copies of the speech she gave at the Washington Prayer Breakfast on February 3, 1994.
In 1997, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, which coordinates pro-life activity for the entire Church, asked me to come to Rome to serve as an official of the Council and to spread the work of Priests for Life throughout the world.
Priests for Life provides resources for clergy, laity, dioceses, parishes, and pro-life offices. Pamphlets and tapes are available. One of our leaflets gives suggestions about how to encourage priests to be more active in the pro-life movement.
Deacons hold full membership in the association and play a vital role. In some places, for example, the deacon-members lead pro-life holy hours on a regular basis.
Working with the laity is an important concern of Priests for Life. Besides motivating priests, we want to train and encourage the laity, and link up their initiatives and projects with the leadership of the clergy. Lay groups appreciate how important that leadership is, yet often feel they don't have enough of it. At the same time, priests can find it confusing to try to sort out and evaluate the multitude of pro-life groups and activities. Priests for Life provides a bridge. By having a close working relationship with dozens of national groups we are able to help the clergy know who is doing what, and are able to assist the groups to experience clergy support.
Priests for Life also offers training to lay persons who want to work part time or full-time in the pro-life movement. We also provide retreats with a pro-life theme, expanding the "Come Aside and Rest a While" pro-life retreat program coordinated by Fr. Mike Mannion.
Priests for Life receives extensive coverage in the Catholic and secular media. Every two weeks we send out our column to every Catholic paper in the country. We have produced a number of television series on abortion for the Eternal Word Television Network, and the worldwide Catholic short-wave radio WEWN. Priests for Life has been quoted extensively in the press and on numerous television and radio programs.
Priests for Life gives special emphasis to promoting awareness of the alternatives to abortion and of the healing and forgiveness available after an abortion. To be pro-life means to be pro-woman. An emphasis on the fact that abortion hurts the mother, as well as kills the child, will assist the public to fully embrace the pro-life position. Priests for Life also assists former providers of abortion, who are now pro-life, to find healing and to share their message with the public.
Babies are dying because people don't know the truth about abortion. So let's encourage priests to be the leaders in this movement to put an end to the killing!
We must remember that priests are people, too. They are affected by criticism; they are affected by praise. They need the encouragement of the laity. If you hear a priest give a solid pro-life homily, write to him and thank him! If he never does so, write a kind but clear plea to address the issue!
Priests and laity alike may write to Priests for Life at P.O. Box 141172, Staten Island, NY 10314 or call 888-PFL-3448. We welcome suggestions about how to encourage the clergy in pro-life work. We ask you also to pray for all priests, that we may "stir into flame the gift of God that we have through the imposition of hands. For the spirit God has given us is no timid spirit but rather one of power and love" (2 Tim. 1:6-7).
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