Building bridges between priests and pro-lifers


Fr. Frank Pavone


Pontifical Council for the Family

The fruitfulness of the mission of the Church depends on the unity of the Church. In a mission as urgent as the defense of human life, the unity of the "People of Life" (Evangelium Vitae #79) is particularly crucial.

Nothing takes more human life than abortion. Approximately 60 million human lives are destroyed each year around the world by this practice. In the United States alone, the tragic toll is one life every twenty seconds. What would the preaching of the Gospel mean if the Church were silent in the face of such a tragedy? Where would the concrete expression of "love your neighbor" be if the Church did not try to save these, her youngest neighbors?

The defense of life is a task of the whole Church. Priests have their role and laity have theirs. The communication and collaboration between priests and laity in the urgent and sensitive mission of fighting abortion can be a particular challenge.

One of the missions of the Priests for Life Association is to help build bridges between priests and people who are particularly active in the movement to end abortion. Since I became Director of Priests for Life in 1993, I have had occasion to see some of the obstacles to this bridge-building, as well as some of the solutions. Here I present a few of each.

Some of the obstacles

1. Waiting for each other. It is one thing to agree that abortion is wrong and something must be done to stop it. It is quite another to reach a common understanding about who makes the first move in organizing activities directed to that purpose.

Many lay persons who are concerned about abortion are waiting for their priest to take the first step to do something about it. They figure that since he is the pastor, the one who "runs the parish," it is up to him to initiate all the activities. If he believes someone can be helpful in carrying out those activities, he will call upon them to get involved. If this does not happen, many begin to wonder why..."Doesn't Father know about the issue? Doesn't he care?"

At the same time, however, many priests are working from a different understanding of how the parish functions. While it is true that they bear the ultimate responsibility for parish activities, they do not thereby conclude that they have to initiate everything. Rather, they have been trained that the laity have their own gifts and mission bestowed on them by baptism and confirmation, and are quite capable of proposing ideas, taking initiatives, and carrying out activities. If lay persons do not come forward with ideas and proposals, the pastor may begin wondering, "Don't my people know about the issue? Don't they care?"

The result, at times, is that priest and people, equally concerned about abortion, are waiting for and wondering about each other.

2. A Vacuum of Leadership. Another obstacle involves what may be a vacuum of experienced, balanced, informed pro-life leadership among the laity in a particular parish -- not that such people do not exist, but that they have not been motivated, formed, and sent forth.

One does not have to have any particular qualifications in order to feel the burden of the legal slaughter of thousands of innocent children every day. People of all backgrounds, educational levels, and degrees of social status feel this burden.

It is natural, furthermore, that the more one realizes about the tragedy of abortion, the more alarmed and angry one becomes, particularly when one also sees the failure of government, media, and education to honestly and adequately deal with the problem. One often feels pressed to choose between thinking that he/she is crazy or that everyone else is. The pieces just don't fit; the whole picture just doesn't make sense. Abortion is undeniably the taking of human life, yet it is cloaked in such widespread denial. This is the kind of problem which, once honestly faced, does not lend itself to leisurely solutions. It arouses, instead, one's most basic sense of justice and most natural tendency to protect the helpless. Abortion is an emergency and elicits an emergency response.

When, in the midst of this, one perceives (rightly or wrongly) that even the Church is not responding in a manner consistent with justice and charity, one's frustration level can reach immense proportions. Then, the one who often becomes the target of the anger and frustration is the priest. He is, after all, the symbol of all the Church should be. The expression of distress over abortion can take the form of approaching the priest with demands which (rightly or wrongly) he sees as unreasonable and annoying.

When priests have told me that some pro-life people in their parish are like this, I have often gently pointed out that the best response is to take responsibility for raising up professional pro-life leadership in the community. Find people in the parish who have professional and organizational skills, good judgment, and an ability to communicate effectively, and get them to feel the burden for the pre-born. This is part of the challenge of the priesthood: to stir into flame the gifts and call of the laity to shape a world in keeping with the demands of justice. By raising up and training such leadership, the energy of many others in the parish can be channeled in a productive and coordinated way.

3. What kind of issue and what kind of strategy? Another obstacle to relations between priests and pro-lifers is a different perception of the abortion issue itself -- not a disagreement that abortion is wrong, but a different fundamental framework (or at least emphasis) by which the issue, and its solution, is understood.

Is abortion primarily a political issue, or is it a Gospel issue? If the priest sees it as a political issue, he may have reservations about addressing it that will not be understood by someone who sees it simply as an issue of "love your neighbor." If the parishioner sees it as a political issue, he may only know how to propose politically oriented activities, which the pastor may be more likely to reject.

The fact is that abortion is the intersection of many issues and many dimensions of personal and societal life. In the Church, it can certainly be presented as a matter of fundamental concern to the very heart of the Gospel. Christ is Life and came to give Life. No Christian can be indifferent, therefore, to what destroys life -- and again, nothing destroys more life than abortion.

It is quite possible to drastically reduce the incidence of abortion in a community without a single reference to politics, parties, or platforms. Instead, talk about persons: persons to whom we offer help in difficult pregnancies, persons in the womb whose rights we uphold, persons who have had abortion, whose wounds we offer to heal.

4. Media misrepresentation. A major obstacle is also misperception of the pro-life movement itself. Anyone, including a priest, who receives his primary information about the pro-life movement from the media, is simply not receiving a balanced and accurate picture of what the movement is. By relying on mass media, one gets the impression that the dominant activities of the movement are street demonstrations, involving people out of control and resorting to violence. This is a double distortion. First of all, a minority of pro-life people even take part in pro-life public demonstrations, and secondly, such demonstrations are peaceful, prayerful, and about as harmless as a family picnic.

The majority of activity in the pro-life movement is actually the effort to provide women in crisis pregnancy with life-giving alternatives. In every community, pro-life people give their time, resources, and efforts to counseling and providing for the emotional, educational, social, and financial needs of women who, without such help, might abort their children.

5. The priest as a god. Jesus Christ is divine; His priests are not. While people rightfully expect much from their priests, they also need to realistically consider the many limitations and difficulties under which priests labor. It is not any easier to raise a spiritual family than a physical one.

Some of the solutions.

1. Specify your expectations. It is normal to want a priest to be "actively pro-life." But in formulating one's expectations (which later translate into requests and, if not fulfilled, perhaps into complaints), it is better to use descriptive language rather than evaluative language. In other words, instead of saying, "I would like my priest to be more dedicated to pro-life," think specifically of what activities or projects you would like him to sponsor or get involved in. Is it giving a homily on the negative effects of abortion, or putting an announcement in the bulletin about the local crisis pregnancy center, or starting a pro-life committee in the parish?

Being very specific will then allow you and others to investigate what is needed for a particular idea to become reality, and to determine whether what is needed can be obtained and accomplished.

2. Listen. Nothing helps more to dispel mistaken notions about people than to listen to them. Priests need to listen to the pro-life leaders and activists of their community: what are their ideas, needs, frustrations, experiences, and hopes? At the same time, pro-lifers need to listen to their priest: what would he like to see the parish do for the pro-life cause, what are his insights and experiences, what are his doubts or obstacles?

Sometimes people tell me their priest is not interested in the pro-life cause. I ask how they concluded that. I am then told that the priest did not respond to their request for a particular activity...but I am also told that the request was made after Sunday Mass, while fifty other people were greeting the priest, and the altar boys were asking him where to put the candles, and the coach was asking for the key to the gym, and the next Mass was to start in ten minutes.

The pro-life cause is a crucial and central aspect of the Church's ministry. It therefore deserves better treatment. Bridge-building between priests and pro-lifers requires sitting down on Monday, not rushing by on Sunday.

3. Communicate. Priests for Life has prepared a brochure entitled "How to Encourage your priest to be Actively Pro-life." Section Five of that brochure contains the following suggestions about communicating with the priest:

"Arrange a meeting between your priest and two or three active, well-informed, pro-lifers of the parish. Use a humble approach that seeks to educate rather than criticize. Do not take the approach "Father, you're not doing your job." Rather, tell the priest you value his leadership, and explain what motivates your own pro-life involvement. Bring him up to date on the movement, and on practical possibilities for action. Stress that people like you are ready to do the work involved in any project. Then leave it in the priest's hands to choose a project from the things you mentioned, or to come up with his own. Even if he does neither, you have educated him a little more on the issue."

4. Experience local pro-life efforts first hand. Few things are more helpful for the priest than to see the local pro-life effort in action. For example, a visit to the local crisis pregnancy center by the parish priest will help not only the center and the priest, but will assist women in that parish who will become aware of the help available because of the fact that the priest knows about it, has seen it, and is confident referring people to it. Such centers may wish to host open houses for the clergy of the city.

5. Commission your pro-life group. Each year, many parishes and schools hold commissioning services for various ministerial groups: servers, catechists, choirs, and so forth. How about commissioning the respect life group?

A suggested format would be to call the members forward after the homily, ask them some questions, say a prayer of blessing, and present them with a symbol of their mission.

Questions could be:

Are you resolved to promote the Church's teachings on the dignity of human life, as outlined in The Gospel of Life?

Are you ready to work together with your pastor, under the guidance of the Bishops' Pastoral Plan for Pro Life Activities, to pray, educate, shape public policy, and provide concrete assistance to women in crisis pregnancies?

The prayer of blessing can be:

Father of all life, we thank you that you have called us into being and made us the people of life. Bless our brothers and sisters who dedicate themselves to be a voice for the voiceless, a defense for the defenseless. By their example enable all of us to proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of Life. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

The symbol given to members of the committee can be the Precious Feet, the pro-life rose, or a copy of The Gospel of Life. Such a ceremony could be done at any time of the year.

6. A Letter to My Priest. Priests for Life provides a tool for lay persons who want to communicate their thoughts about pro-life involvement but perhaps cannot find the words. We have provided a pamphlet called A Letter to My Priest About the Abortion Crisis, incorporating many of the suggestions included above. Write to us for free copies.


Obviously, the obstacles and solutions pointed out above lie in the hands of both priests and pro-lifers. Building bridges to strengthen the Church's witness to life is a privileged work of Priests for Life and of all of us. More than anything else, what has been evident to me is the heroism of so many priests and laity throughout the world. People have and will continue to put their resources, reputations, and very lives on the line to save the preborn. This is nothing less than what we have been commanded, to lay down our lives for one another. There, indeed, is the ultimate bridge-building.