STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. Sometime between Sept. 18-20, 45,000 diocesan priests in the United States received a newsletter from Priests for Life, an organization committed to the defense of human life through an educational outreach to parish priests.
Today, some 7,000 people will visit the Priests for Life Web site. And on Sept. 26, a television show hosted by Priests for Life director Father Frank Pavone will be broadcast into 55 million American homes and 38 different countries.
The message? Victory over abortion must come about through the efforts of the Church. Therefore, it is imperative to train, encourage and inspire the clergy of the nation to be more actively pro-life.
Said executive director Anthony DeStefano in a recent interview, "If we can build up an army of priests to lead the fight against abortion, we will win. The reason is that, if you reach one priest, you also reach the thousands of people in his parish; if you train and encourage 100 priests, your message gets out to tens of thousands of people; if you reach all the priests of the country, you will change the hearts of millions."
In order to reach all priests, DeStefano added, Priests for Life cannot be "just some other pro-life group," but a promoter of all good pro-life efforts already in place. "Priests for Life is part of the Church," DeStefano said. "We may be smaller than some other organizations in terms of our budget and staff, but we are really much larger in terms of our mission and our scope. Part of our job is to assist all the other groups in the movement, to help bring about a real unity, as only the Church can do."
DeStefano said that to this end, Priests for Life is always looking for ways to cultivate good will within among different pro-life groups, to forge personal relationships with leaders, and to break down personal animosities and other barriers to cooperation even when this means engaging some of the most ardent pro-choice advocates.
An Invitation to Mass
Current director Father Pavone recently invited Bill Baird, the man many call the father of legalized abortion, to a Mass he celebrated at this year's National Right to Life Convention.
Father Pavone said that after Mass, Baird commented on the overflow of love that came from the people," and added that it was the first Mass he had ever attended.
But in a phone interview with the Register, Baird said he thought Father Pavone's invitation was politically motivated. "Everything he's done is political rather than an act of kindness. At the end of his sermon he said that Catholics are not imposing their views on others. That's an arrogant statement," Baird said. He added, "Jews take their orders from God, Muslims take their orders from God. If it was an act of kindness, he would have followed Bishop James Hickey's appeal for pro-lifers to avoid inflammatory language and to be respectful of human life, made in 1978 after meeting with me in Cleveland."
Despite this unusual relationship between Father Pavone and Baird, who speak with each other regularly, Baird told the Register that the priest and his organization is guilty of being part of a war machine that has declared a holy war against people outside of his faith. Baird said, "You can't prevent non-Catholics from entering abortion clinics. What if Christian Scientists blockaded hospitals? Father Pavone doesn't understand his opposition."
Baird warned that "through hate speech that creates a climate of violence," pro-lifers are "laying the seeds for a holy war... I want your side to hear that in the year 2000 you can expect to see the same violence we have had to endure for decades. I hope I'm wrong, but I expect the pro-choice side to fight back with violence. Only then will Father Pavone and people like him understand our side."
But Father Pavone is not convinced that he should or could change his approach. "There is no honest way to describe abortion without saying it is the killing of a human being," the priest said. "If abortion supporters could prove that this is not what abortion is, they would do so. But they can't. The dispute over abortion is not just about 'views'. It's about victims. This is a point abortion supporters easily miss. The law doesn't really care what your views are about stealing. It just prohibits you from doing it, because others have a right to their possessions. The same with killing."
According to supporters of Priests for Life, the ongoing debate between Father Pavone and Baird is typical of the openness of the organization. They said its great strength is its willingness to engage opponents and support all good pro-life efforts. Flexibility, they said, accounts for rapid growth of Priests for Life and the success it has had in motivating priests and the lay faithful to spread the Gospel of life.
"Priests for Life is one of the greatest success stories ever to come out of the pro-life movement," DeStefano said. Five years ago the group had no staff and a paltry $3,000 in the bank. Now, Priests for Life is a rapidly expanding global organization."
Priests for Life began in 1990, prompted by fears that threats to life were expanding in the wake of legalized abortion. Euthanasia had been a creeping threat for years, and in 1990 Dr. Jack Kevorkian performed the first of many "assisted suicides" gassing Janet Adkins to death in her Michigan cabin.
The following year, government officials in the Netherlands released the Remmelink report, which detailed the growing incidence of involuntary euthanasia in Dutch hospitals.
A handful of priests from California got together and said, "with the problems of abortion and euthanasia, we should really network priests so that they can know each other and share ideas," said Father Pavone, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. "They thought this would enable priests to speak effectively and with one voice for life.
Father Pavone said that at the time Priests for Life was starting up in California, organizing itself as a private association of the faithful, with the support of the archbishop of San Francisco, he was thinking of doing something similar on the East Coast.
"Cardinal O'Connor was starting up Sisters for Life [a community of nuns devoted to prayer for an end to abortion] and I asked if anything was organized for priests," Father Pavone recalled. "When I found out about Priests for Life, I joined right away."
According to Father Pavone, there are 5,000 formal members of Priests for Life, though a lot more come to our seminars." A staff of 25, including five full-time priests, runs the central offices of Priests for Life on Staten Island in New York.
Father Pavone said that the work of the full-time priests at Priests for Life is "very pastoral." "Our priests are hearing confessions, saying Masses and counseling women all the time," he said.
Father Pavone credits Priests for Life for bringing together groups within the pro-life movement that didn't speak to each other at one time. "Within the pro-life movement we have a positive relationship with all the groups," he contended. "Our accent is on flexibility. We don't promote one particular approach, but try to strengthen what already exists in a diocese or a parish."
Father Pavone added that while the mission of Priests for Life hasn't changed, it has had to adapt its message on occasion to meet the culture. "When Priests for Life started we thought that if the public is convinced that this is a baby that's being aborted, then abortions would stop," he observed. "We've found out that that message does have to get across, but that even when people are convinced of it, they still think abortion is 'unfortunate but necessary.'"
One of the many successes Father Pavone mentioned was a woman who chose not to have an abortion after seeing his television show "Defending Life." In a letter to Father Pavone the woman wrote, "when I was 12 weeks pregnant, the night before I was going to have an abortion, I was sleeping on my couch and somehow woke up to your program at 12:30 a.m.. It made me realize I was looking at abortion for social reasons. Now, I am four and a half months pregnant and I cannot express the guilt I feel for having the thought of having an abortion. I really feel your program was a miracle that night."