The first discernment retreat for the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life began Friday, bringing to town 35 potential priests looking to decide if they want to dedicate their life to defeating abortion.
The Missionaries of the Gospel of Life is a new religious order founded by the Roman Catholic Church. It will be the first religious order devoted exclusively to promoting pro-life issues, and Amarillo will be its home - a cause for celebration by the Catholic Diocese of Amarillo and concern for the local Planned Parenthood.
The Rev. Frank Pavone, founder of the order and director of Priests for Life, said the men will spend the weekend in intense prayer, daily Masses and seminars by Pavone and other members of the Priests for Life pastoral team on what the life of a member of the missionaries would involve. That life consists of everything from teaching and preaching at churches across the country to mobilizing pro-life activities to pressing people to vote in accordance with their beliefs.
"That's about teaching the people of the church that they don't cease to be Christians when they go into the voting booth," Pavone said. "The work will involve sensitizing people to their responsibilities in the political realms - in other words, good Christians are good citizens."
So far, Pavone said, he's gotten hundreds of inquiries into the group. The retreat was capped at 35 to maintain its intimacy, he said, but with time he expects it to grow.
"Eventually it could become very big," Pavone said. "Some of these societies have hundreds or thousands of members."
But Planned Parenthood of Amarillo and the Texas Panhandle isn't waiting for that to step up security. The local clinic began building a security fence, which is now being protested in Amarillo City Council meetings by diocese representatives and others, around the facility in preparation for this weekend's meeting, even though Pavone says the group has no intention of promoting violence.
"Notwithstanding his personal desires for no conflict, (Pavone) is clear that he cannot be responsible for the behaviors of others," said Claudia Stravato, executive director of the local Planned Parenthood. Stravato said she had a two-hour conversation with Pavone on the subject, that, although it was cordial, did not allay her fears.
"From our point of view, when you accelerate the size of the protest to include many more people and people outside of Amarillo, we just think the mathematical possibilities (for violence) go up," she said.
Although none of the Texas Panhandle Planned Parenthoods offer abortions, Stravato said the local clinic is already protested every Friday and Saturday, and the Tulia clinic has had problems with people looking in the clinic windows, taking pictures of patients' cars and reporting patients to their parents.
But Pavone still thought Stravato had little cause to expect violence - less cause, even, than she has now. Violent protesters, he said, would be less likely to do anything that might hurt the peaceful protestors in the vicinity. And now that he's had the opportunity to explain as much to her, he doesn't understand why she's still worried.
"It's bordering on the paranoid now," he said. "Initially she didn't know much about us. She knows more now. She knows full well that we're a peaceful group."
He said her protests represented less a fear of the group's actions - or those of anyone they might attract - than a fear of their message.
"If they have anything to be afraid of, it's the truth of the message," Pavone said.
"When people hear it and understand it, they're not going to want anything to do with Planned Parenthood. They know full well their buildings are not going to be destroyed, but their message will be destroyed."
And Stravato readily admits that she is anything but a fan of their message.
"I'm concerned about their goals," she said.
"They were very clear. This will be a decidedly political group. They will not be contemplative. They are radically opposed to Planned Parenthood in any shape and form. They're extremist in that they have one issue, and they will do anything to achieve it."
The next discernment retreat, which will be for ordained priests, will be July 19, and Pavone said, factoring in time to process any applications they get following the retreat, he expects the order to be up and running in September.
The group is currently being housed in the diocese's old Alamo Catholic High School, and is in the process of planning additional buildings.