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An American Journey - to the Church

National Catholic Register

July 4-10-2004

Joseph A. D'Agostino

Paul Schenck, 45, born Jewish in New Jersey, was an ordained Episcopalian minister before becoming Catholic.

He spent a lifetime in Christian ministry and pro-life activism, even defending the right to public pro-life speech in a case that reached the Supreme Court. He is married with eight children and earlier this year entered the Catholic Church.

Schenck is executive director of Gospel of Life Ministries, which has its offices on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. He spoke to Register correspondent Joseph A. D'Agostino.

Did you consider yourself Jewish when you were a child?

Oh yes, absolutely. We went to Hebrew school. It was a Reform Hebrew school, so Judaism was a social identification slightly more than a religious identification. But nevertheless, we understood ourselves to be religiously Jewish, though we were not observant.

Your family fled to America, right?

My family fled the pogroms to come to the United States. My uncle was captured by Cossacks and held for ransom, threatened with being killed as a 4-year-old child, and the whole shtetl [Jewish community] had to raise a ransom to get his life back. The family that stayed behind in Minsk perished entirely, evaporated in the Holocaust. My family history was like Edith Stein, like St. Teresa Benedicta.

How did you come to be baptized?

My twin brother, Rob, and I at two different times met a group of wonderful Christians from many different church traditions, including Catholic, who were a vital witness of faith in our high school. My wife was among them. They so wonderfully witnessed to Christ living in their lives in this public high school, I was first drawn to that vital, living Christian faith.

At a New Life mission at a little country Methodist church the editor of Guideposts magazine gave a public invitation to those who would believe in Christ and embrace him in faith as their savior. I went forward. It was 1974, so I was 15 years old.

I was baptized in the Niagara River that following fall on the verge of my 16th birthday.

How did you make your way to the Catholic Church?

I think seven years ago I became Catholic in my mind - intellectually Catholic.

Four years ago, I became Catholic in my heart, and that tied directly to my being in the Holy Land with the Holy Father for the papal pilgrimage through my friendship with the bishop of the Melkite Greek Catholic Church.

When I arrived in Cairo, my host, who was a former student of mine met me at the airport and said, "You have an appointment at 10 in the morning. You're never going to imagine with whom."

I said, "No, I can't. Who?" He said, "With Pope John Paul II. There is an ecumenical encounter at the basilica and you're invited."

So the next morning we went but the police wouldn't let us in.

We didn't have the proper cards. I e-mailed Melkite Bishop John Elya and he said, "Go over to the Greek patriarchate in Cairo and the Holy Father will be there this evening and you will meet him there."

So I went over there and stayed the whole day, but that was the day the Greek archbishop stood up the Holy Father. They were supposed to pray together. He never came. The Holy Father was there the whole day, so he was off schedule and had to go back to Rome. So I missed him again.

I came back to the States. I get a call from Bishop Elya. He says, "You have an appointment to see the Holy Father on Tuesday in Bethlehem. You will accompany the archbishop of Jerusalem."

So back on the plane, I shot over to Jerusalem again. When I arrived, I went in simply to announce I was in the country at the patriarchate. They said, "Oh, His Grace wants to see you." So I saw the archbishop and he said, "You did bring your Eastern vestments and you'll concelebrate with the Holy Father in Bethlehem tomorrow?" And I joke now that if I was ever tempted to lie ... He thought I was a Catholic priest.

So I said, "Your Grace, I'm not Catholic ..." By the way, he is now patriarch of Antioch, Gregorios III. He said, "Nevertheless, you'll have an honored seat among the priests tomorrow. You'll see. I'll be there, you'll be there, the Holy Father will be there, and you'll be absorbed. You'll see ..."

The sacrament was being consecrated around me. It was the most spiritual moment in my entire life, in anything I have ever done. And then we went to St. Catherine's Convent with only maybe 25 people. We're walking maybe three or four or five abreast with the Holy Father. I came home convinced in my heart that I had to be in the Catholic Church.

I took my time. I was a pastor. I lived in a house owned by the Reformed Episcopal diocese. How was I going to support my family?

I did something I had never done in my Christian life. I asked a saint for help. I asked Teresa Benedicta to make it possible for me to become Catholic. That would have been about 2001. I just began reading, attending Mass here and there when possible.

Then last summer, I learned about Father Frank Pavone's vision of establishing an ecumenical initiative that would bring Catholics, evangelicals and all conscientious Christians together around the life issues.

He wanted to call it Gospel of Life Ministries, and I was already serving as chairman of the National Clergy Council. I have many strongly pro-life friends in Protestant ministry.

I went to Father Pavone and asked him about my taking a lead role in building that organization and it took him about two-and-a-half minutes to answer in the affirmative. I became the executive director of Gospel of Life Ministries, and that's what my job description is now, which I call an ecumenical initiative of Priests for Life.

On the first Sunday in Lent this year, I was received into the Catholic Church at St. Roch's Church in Staten Island by Father Pavone and Father Leo Prince, the pastor. My wife and I had our marriage convalidated and I received confirmation.

Father C.J. McCloskey was the first priest I spoke to asking to be prepared to become a Catholic. We met three or four times before he went to the United Kingdom to write his book. His guidance was enormously helpful.

What about Schenck v. ProChoice Network?

When I was a pastor in western New York, I helped organize the Western New York Clergy Council, which eventually had 75 members from 20 different churches. We provided counseling, referral and prayer for women outside of abortion sites.

Five abortion businesses banded together and sued me and anyone working with me and asked a federal judge to sign a cease-and-desist restraining order to keep me and anyone acting with me from approaching anybody who wanted an abortion offering literature, praying for them, singing, even wearing clerical vestments in their presence -- anything that would be construed by an ordinary person as being opposed to abortion within 17 counties in western New York.

So that did not mean just outside of abortion businesses. That meant on a public park bench, it meant on a bus, anywhere within 15 feet of anybody who wanted an abortion, had an abortion, worked in an abortion business, volunteered at an abortion site. It was so bizarre that I honestly didn't take it seriously.

I didn't even get a lawyer. I went into court myself and I said, "Your Honor, I'm not a lawyer, I don't have a law degree, but I've read the Constitution and this is so blatantly opposed to the First Amendment." Ten months later he signed the order against me, granting them almost everything.

That Christmas my brother and I and three others went out in front of a post office behind which was an abortion business. On the public sidewalk we passed out New Testaments and tracts by Billy Graham called "Peace with God." .. We were cited; I was convicted for violating the order on five counts. We appealed. It went on for seven years and $778,000 in defense expenses.

How did it turn out?

Before I went to prison I appealed to the court of appeals, and while I was in prison, the case was heard and decided. A three-judge panel decided 2 to 1 that the order was an unconstitutional violation of my First Amendment rights. So I was let out of jail the next morning, but I was told not to go home but to go directly to the federal courthouse in Buffalo. I said okay. A month in federal prison makes you more docile.

I went to the federal courthouse only to be told that the chief federal judge in New York City had rescinded the finding of the three judge panel and had granted that the case be reargued en banc review, which meant in front of the whole panel of federal judges.

Seventeen judges in Manhattan heard the case in January 1995. Two abstained, seven for me and eight against me, which turned out to be providential because otherwise I never would have gotten to the Supreme Court. We'd run out of money. I'd raised $325,000 by that time to pay for my defense.

By that time, Pat Robertson was involved and he said, "Money is no object. Take it to the Supreme Court." So he would raise almost another half-million dollars. With the American Center for Law and Justice, we took it to the Supreme Court.

We argued it in October 1996, and the decision came down Feb. 17, 1997, and it was 8 to 1 in my favor: fundamental violation of my constitutional rights under the First Amendment. They allowed the restrictions to stay around the clinic entrances but struck down everything else. Justice Steven Breyer was the one against me.

I had Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on my side, Justice David Souter on my side.

Later I met Souter at the court at a reception, and I went up to him. I said, "Mr. Justice, I just wanted to thank you for voting in my case." He turned to me and I reached out my hand, but he wouldn't give me his hand. I very awkwardly stood there in front of people with my hand out and he looked at me and said, "I'm not inclined to give you my hand, for what you and your brother stand for. I'm not interested."

I said, "Mr. Justice, just a handshake." He said, "Not interested," and he turned his back on me.

Justice Clarence Thomas saw and he came over to rescue me and he put his arm around me and said, "Tell me the about your church. I want to hear about your work with your brother." But Souter was petty.

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