Like most pro-life activists, Father Frank A. Pavone dreams of ending abortion in America. Unlike most others, however, he has a detailed plan, a full-time staff, a spacious headquarters and millions of dollars for achieving his dream.
He speaks in certain terms: abortion kills children, ruins women's lives and undermines the moral fabric of our nation. To stop it, he is making the media his message.
Months after launching a national education campaign that had significant impact on last November's election, he and his organization, Priests for Life, are planning a $3.2 million media effort. Four 30-second television advertisements will be appearing soon in large markets... during popular viewing hours. Avoiding controversial issues, the ads appeal to the heart, presenting abortion as a negative experience that leaves a void in the lives of those who are touched by it. Each concludes with the message: "The doors of the Church are open," inviting viewers to visit their local parishes or log on to Priests for Life's Web site. A toll-free number, 1-800-5-WE-CARE, connects to a national referral service for post-abortion healing.
A press conference to announce the media initiatives will be held Thursday, March 29, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. Last summer Father Pavone was at the center of a media frenzy there when he announced the educational campaign aimed at Catholic politicians and voters. Media people grilled him for two hours on abortion and the relationship between church and state.
"It was like Pro-Life 101," recalled Jerry Horn, senior advisor of Priests for Life. "We were getting our message directly to the major media and they wouldn't let us go."
A full-page ad in The New York Times last July caused equal stir. Framed in the style of the Declaration of Independence, with an image of an American flag in the background, the ad began, "We, the undersigned Catholic Priests..." Citing two documents of the U.S. bishops, "Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics" and "Faithful Citizenship: Civic Responsibility for a New Millennium," the ad declared, "To those who would allow abortion and claim to be Christian, we say, "Stop being a scandal to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
The latest advertising effort is part of a professional strategy to bypass the pro-abortion elements in the media and society and appeal directly to the people.
"This is a gradual unfolding of what has always been our driving mission," said Father Pavone, a priest of the New York Archdiocese who has served as national director of Priests for Life since 1993. "We are absolutely determined to bring this abortion tragedy to an end."
His efforts have drawn the attention of friends and foes. Steve Wagner, a public opinion expert who has studied the Catholic vote for the past two years, called Father Pavone the most influential individual in the last presidential campaign, during which the Bush team consulted Father Pavone on pro-life and Catholic issues.
The National Right to Life Committee is honoring him at the Proudly Pro Life Dinner April 25 at the Waldorf-Astoria.
U.S. bishops have praised his use of their document and he has letters of encouragement from Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, whom he worked under for two years at the Pontifical Council for the Family in Rome, and Cardinal O'Connor, who released him from archdiocesan duties to head up Priests for Life.
The newly renovated, two-story building on Staten Island which houses the organization's offices is called the John Cardinal O'Connor International Headquarters.
Not surprisingly, Father Pavone has been branded an extremist by the Feminist Majority and the left-wing Institute for Democracy Studies, which warned of his organization's "carefully coiffed mainstream image." Americans United for Separation of Church and State vowed to monitor Father Pavone's "tainted project" and threatened to inform the Internal Revenue Service of any activity that might compromise his tax-exempt status.
Yet even faithful Catholics may raise their eyebrows over the most recent campaign. After all, what are a bunch of priests doing raising millions of dollars for what they call a TV blitz? Shouldn't they stay in the pulpits and leave the worldly work to the laity?
Father Pavone hears the objection often and has a ready answer. Like the Church itself, Priests for Life is not just for the clergy, and its primary role is to provide for the work and welfare of lay persons, he said. About 45,000 priests and deacons around the country are on the mailing list. But thousands of lay people are associated with the organization, which they support with $15 membership fees and larger donations, and they look to the organization for guidance and encouragement in their pro-life work.
"Whatever pro-life people are doing, we want to be there with them. We want to model our ministry on the priest in the parish," he stated. "There is nothing that goes on in the parish that the priest is not a part of. He's not there to do everything, but to be an inspiration, a fatherly guide who gives life to everything in the parish. That's how we see ourselves in the pro-life movement."
There is also the question of money. Where does Priests for Life get millions to mount the airwaves and billboards? From a number of major donors and thousands of smaller ones who send in their $25 and $50 each month, Father Pavone says. Donors are sought through direct mail and grassroots contacts he and his staff have built through visits to hundreds of parishes over the years.
One of them is Joseph Brinck, a business owner in Ohio, who met Father Pavone during his visit a few years ago to his suburban parish.
"The Catholic Church is absolutely key to the struggle against abortion, and Father Frank is the heart of that," he told CNY. "I support them financially and have introduced my friends to being supporters."
The number of donors increased dramatically last summer after Father Pavone announced the educational campaign aimed at putting a pro-life president in office. Contrary to the picture his opponents paint, he did not receive his marching orders or money from the Republican Party, he said.
The effort was "an imperative from the heart of the Church herself," he said. "We saw what was at stake for the pro-life movement, but we did not target a particular party or candidate. What we did would have been the same no matter what party took what position. People have said that we helped the Republican Party, but this was not necessarily true. We published the existence of Democrats for Life and took a consistent stand against the death penalty."
Being a priest, his outreach is directed toward souls as well. He has had lunch with abortionists, correspondence with abortion advocates and "high-level meetings with media people about the abortion issue." Too many pro-life people write off the media as hopelessly biased, "but they are human beings too ...If they are willing to meet with us, we're anxious to meet with them," he said.
Years ago he befriended Norma McCorvey, the anonymous plaintiff in the Roe vs. Wade decision which legalized abortion in America. She was baptized by evangelical Christians, and in 1998 Father Pavone received her into the Catholic Church.
"He's one of the greatest mentors I've ever had," she said in an interview from Texas. "He's always treated me as an individual person, and through his guidance I've come to love my Church."
The Priests for Life staff includes 20 lay persons and three other priests who work full-time for the organization. Like Father Pavone, the priests travel throughout the country to parishes, pro-life groups, seminaries and conferences. Father Peter J. West is from the Newark Archdiocese in New Jersey, and Fathers Denis G. Wilde, O.S.A., and Walter J. Quinn, O.S.A., have been released for the work by their superiors in the Augustinian order.
Father Quinn, ordained 40 years, calls himself the "granddaddy" of the group. He has served in a number of parishes, including St. Nicholas of Tolentine in the Bronx, but now considers pro-life work the most important in the Church.
The three 30-second television ads, produced by an agency in Grand Rapids, Mich., focus on the hurt and loss of abortion. One shows a woman watching her small daughter blowing out birthday candles as the child disappears, and a man watching his son playing baseball and disappearing as he rounds first base. A narrator states, "If you know that special moments in your life have been missing since your abortion…the doors of the Church are open."
Another shows children telling what they want to be when they grow up as the narrator says, "The choice to have an abortion alters the course of the future. If you're struggling with this decision, the doors of the Church are open."
Anthony DeStefano, executive director of Priests for Life, says that the spots are designed to avoid controversy and politics and to stress that millions of men and women in America are suffering silently over abortion.
"We don't show aborted babies," he said. "But the message still gets through. The premise of the ads is that abortion hurts, that it destroys something precious, someone precious. We end by saying the Church recognizes this and is there to help with the healing."
Father Pavone added, "They are also designed to light a spark among priests. If they see an ad that says the church doors are open, they would be inclined to prepare themselves to help."
Part of the work of his organization is to help fellow priests in that preparation. As his assistant, Janet Morana, sees it, "From the time he gets up to the time he goes to sleep, Father Frank is working to stop abortion."
Besides spreading the word in person, he appears regularly on the Eternal Word Television Network, provides an hour-long show for a Catholic radio network which he records in his own studio, sends tapes on contemporary issues to Vatican Radio, writes a bi-monthly column which goes free to all diocesan newspapers and updates daily the Priests for Life Web site. He has written dozens of handy pamphlets on a range of topics that are sent around the world.
Citing Pope John Paul II's message on World Communications Day, he said, "The Church must be involved in this powerful medium of mass communications. We cannot surrender the field to those who oppose life."