In 2003, Priests for Life launched an effort to encourage every parish in the country to "spiritually adopt" at least one abortion business.
In this way, every clinic would have at least one parish praying for its closure, the conversion of the staff and the protection of women and children who enter the facility.
Among the dioceses in which the idea has found fertile soil is the Archdiocese of Chicago, whose Respect Life Office has tailored it to fit 375 parishes. It began when the office sent information on the initiative - called the Mother Teresa Project - to each church, asking parishioners to say rosaries, participate in holy hours and offer daily prayers for the end of abortion in their communities.
"Ultimately, it is our goal to have people come out and pray in front of the clinics themselves," says Margie Manczko, program manager at the Respect Life Office, noting that Chicago Cardinal Francis George has participated in a number of demonstrations. "However, any prayers offered in the home, at church or anywhere else certainly are beneficial."
Mother Teresa's name was chosen for the initiative because the beatified nun was steadfast and outspoken in her opposition to abortion, and she was an inspiration to Priests for Life's national director, Father Frank Pavone. "It was her wish to have an adoration chapel beside every abortion clinic to pray for its closure," Manczko says.
Among the Chicago parishes that have made the program their own is St. Mary of the Angels, thanks in no small part to the prolife activism of Carol Walsh and Tessa Kocan, members of the young-adult ministry.
Walsh, Kocan and other friends had been sidewalk counseling at a clinic in January and felt a need for a greater spirituality to aid in their efforts. They promoted the program to the young-adult ministry and the parish at large, and their Saturday-morning counseling has since drawn a dozen "prayer warriors" each weekend to provide them with spiritual support.
"A lot of Catholics think, okay, I'm prolife, but what am I supposed to do about it? The Mother Teresa program is a great place to start," Walsh says. "It is both feasible and effective, and something they can do right at their own parish."
Priests for Life has paired St. Mary of the Angels with a clinic on Chicago's South Cottage Grove Avenue, but parishes can take additional clinics under their wings.
Walsh stresses that the program operates under the auspices of the local diocese. "St. Mary's has been assigned a particular clinic for which to pray, by the archdiocese," she says. "So we're operating under the authority of the local Church."
Kocan notes one immediate positive aspect of the program. "Although it's difficult to quantify the success of the Mother Teresa Project," she says, "we have definitely received less hostility from the clinic staff since it began."
Calvary at the Clinic
Manczko has observed similar improvements. A few years ago, she left a secular career to answer a challenge by Father Pavone to work fulltime in the pro-life movement. She joined Chicago's archdiocesan prolife office two years ago, volunteering for efforts such as praying in front of clinics.
"It's like you're praying at the foot of Calvary with the Blessed Mother and St. John," she says. "You're witnessing innocents being slaughtered, all the while praying and suffering with Christ."
Kocan agrees. "Praying in front of an abortion clinic is a profound experience," she says. "While we don't know how effective we are, I have grown closer to Christ and received many graces. It's also helped me grow in humility and compassion toward others."
Kocan is candid about her pro-abortion opponents, including the "deathscorts" who accompany women into the clinic. "It really makes you see evil more clearly," she says. "But while they hate us, we love them and pray for their conversion. And that's what the Mother Teresa Project is, a way of conversion."
Walsh has always believed in the pro-life cause, although she did not always actively act on her belief. She began sidewalk counseling at the beginning of the year after friends recommended it to her. She has been a regular outside her designated clinic ever since.
Walking the Talk
Kocan's pro-life activism began at age 6, when she prayed in front of clinics with her mother. She returned to sidewalk counseling a few years ago and is working on a book about her experiences. She is enthusiastic about the prospects of the Mother Teresa Project. "I know we can close down these clinics in this way," she says.
But Kocan is not content with only having laymen pray in front of the clinics. She wants members of the clergy to have a regular presence there, as well. So she went to her spiritual director, Father Burns Seeley, who was associate pastor at the nearby St. John Cantius Church, and asked him to join them Saturday mornings at the clinic.
"She was an inspiration to me," Father Seeley says. "She was doing so much more than talking about being pro-life."
Earlier this year, Father Seeley made a commitment to pray in front of the clinic at least once a month. The reaction, he says, has been varied. He recalls one female passerby reproaching him, saying, "Shame, shame." But another young woman came over and said, "God bless you, Father."
His collar may make him stand out on the sidewalk, but Father Seeley is quick to point to the laypeople who have turned Chicago's Mother Teresa Project into a force to be reckoned with.
"I'm so impressed with what Tessa, Carol and all the young women who are out there do to save the lives of babies," he says. "They're deeply spiritual young people, the hope for our future. It's so good to see them taking their faith seriously."
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California