NEW YORK -- However you read the name, "Priests for Life" (PFL) expresses a certain theological truth. Some people, upon hearing the name, may think the organization defends the Church's teaching on the sacramental character of Holy Orders - once a priest always a priest.
That's a nice mistake, says the organization's publicity director Jerry Horn, but the truth is just as compelling: All priests, as representatives of the One who is Life, should be unconditionally pro-life.
It is encouraging, then, that Priests for Life (an Association of the Faithful as defined in canon law) has some 40,000 members among priests, deacons. and lay people throughout the country. The main work of the group is to bring clergy members to an active and effective pro-life apostolate among their people, even if they have few hours to spare in a busy pastoral schedule or they think no one will support them. The goal is approached from every angle, with leaders of the group giving conferences and retreats. writing pamphlets and newspaper articles and, in the case of the international director, Father Frank Pavone, hosting a regular program on Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network. Even lay people are enlisted in the cause and supplied with a host of ways of helping their priests become more actively pro-life.
Father Pavone, from the New York archdiocese, has been head of the group since 1993. As an official of the Pontifical Council for the Family for the past three years, he also promotes prolife activities worldwide and spends much of his time in Rome.
Associate director Father Richard Hogan, from the Archdiocese of St. Paul, Minn. heads the national office in New York. A scholar, he holds a doctorate in medieval history from the University of Minnesota and is co-author of two books published by Doubleday on the writings of Pope John Paul II. He also helped to develop the Image of God series of religious education textbooks published by Ignatius Press.
Recently, two priests were added to the full-time staff to meet the growing demand for the organization's services.
Father Peter West, ordained in 1991 was assigned to PFL in March for three years by the Archdiocese of Newark, N.J. Joining the group in the fall will be Augustinian Father Denis G. Wilde, OSA, a chorus director and composer for more than 20 years at Villanova University, who plans to use music to help rally pro-life activists.
Among the group's 15 episcopal advisers are Alfonso Cardinal Lopez Trujillo, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family; Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. of Denver, Colo.; Bishop John Myers of Peoria, Ill.; Bishop Rene Gracida of Corpus Christi, Texas; and retired Bishop George Lynch of Raleigh, who has been arrested more than two dozen times participating in demonstrations with Operation Rescue.
Father Wilde was drawn to the association by a brief notice in a newsletter asking priests to consider joining full time. Soon after meeting with Father Pavone, he received approval from his superiors for a leave of absence from Villanova.
"I feel at this particular time in life that I needed to pursue my pro-life convictions in a more direct and formal way," Father Wilde, an Augustinian for the past 36 years, said in a Register interview. "It's time to get down to the primary life issues in this culture of death. Christ says that when you help the least of his brothers, you help him. Well, the least among us are the unborn babies. If we cannot protect them, what hope is there for the rest of us?"
Father West is a young priest, which the organization is attracting more and more of around the country. His pro life activities were an impetus to his discerning a call to the priesthood and entering the seminary. As a New Jersey parish priest, he preached often on prolife issues and led prayer vigils outside abortion clinics that resulted in a number of women changing their minds and keeping their babies.
If all priests had this background, said Father Pavone, who was a pro-life activist for 12 years before his ordination in 1988, the need for Priests for Life would be greatly diminished.
The primary focus of the organization is not so much to convert priests a pro-life stance; most of them know the basic moral theology and hold to the truth, he said. The challenge is to help priests find good and practical ways bring their beliefs into action and encourage their parishioners to do the same. He realizes that too many pro-lifers have legitimate complaints about priests not cooperating with their prolife initiatives and even treating pro-lifers and their single-minded agenda as obstacles to parish harmony. Father Pavone wrote a pamphlet for lay people to address this issue.
"We are not saying that priests are not pro-life," Father Pavone explained during a recent visit to New York and Washington, D.C. "We are addressing the reality that most priests have so many activities going on, and that there are so many pro-life activities to become involved in, that some feel overwhelmed. In many cases we find that older priests who were ordained before the pro-life movement began don't know how to get involved. We, as Priests for Life, are able to sort through the entire field of issues and activities for them and present them with ways of making a start."
The priest-to-priest approach is particularly effective, he added.
"A priest understands the life of a fellow priest and knows the difficulties of parish or religious life," he said. "When a priest talks to another priest, there is a fraternal quality that goes beyond the mere informational service that so many lay pro-life groups can give. Ultimately, a priest, like anyone else, will become active in the pro-life movement only through a strong conviction and commitment. That is more likely to come about through the encouragement of a fellow priest."
In the planning stage are canonical moves to establish Priests for Life as a religious community that can accept and train seminarians, a parallel congregation to the Sisters of Life, founded seven years ago in New York by John Cardinal O'Connor. Like the sisters, the priests would take the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and a fourth vow of defending innocent human life in all its stages.
"There are many avenues we can take along these lines and we are in the research stage now," said Father Pavone.
For the present he is continuing to seek priests who are able to devote a year or more to the apostolate, and bishops or religious superiors willing to release such priests.
"We need to do all we can to promote pro-life within the Church. This is no time to be distracted by other things," Father Wilde said. "Pro-life issues are so fundamental [compared] to all other moral issues." He has written a number of songs based on the writings of St. Augustine with a focus on the themes of wrestling with interior conflicts and abandonment to God's providence found in the Saint's Confessions. He wants to write similar songs with pro-life themes, noting that the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s relied heavily on music to direct the mind and the emotions.
"Issues surrounding abortion and euthanasia are such hot issues," he said. "Music has a strong capacity to bring calm and peace and also to energize people."
He is particularly interested in post-abortion counseling and healing for women who have undergone the procedure and suffer from a sense of loss and guilt. He has worked in the past with Project Rachel and other post-abortion programs.
"There are tremendous pastoral possibilities in all pro-life work," said Father Wilde, "but we need to explore these and present them from a perspective of where people are now. We never compromise the truth but as priests we do exercise Christ's compassion and forgiveness."
Contact Priests for Life at PO Box 141112, Staten Island, NY 10314; (tel.) 888-PFL-3448,. (e-mail) firstname.lastname@example.org