As the countdown toward the Republican and Democratic national conventions begins, a Roman Catholic priest formerly assigned to Staten Island is emerging as a major behind-the-scenes player in influencing the opinion and votes of the nation's Catholic constituency.
The Rev. Frank Pavone, 37, who was formerly parochial vicar of St. Charles R.C Church in Oakwood, heads the national 'Priests for Life," a non-profit, anti-abortion organization based in Port Chester, N.Y.
Since his appointment to the position three years ago, with the blessing of Cardinal John J. O'Connor, Father Pavone has traveled the country speaking against abortion and euthanasia to priests and Catholic lay groups. He also has been eliciting their increased participation in pro-life activities.
But the presidential election in November, coupled with President Clinton's recent veto of the bill that would ban partial birth abortions, has propelled Father Pavone to the forefront as a national spokesman for the pro-life movement.
Between now and November, "Father Frank," as he prefers to be called, will make more than 34 stops in cities and towns around the country. He also is preparing a nationally syndicated cable television program and video presentation that will be aired just before Election Day.
Father Pavone, who became a well-known figure to Island Catholics during the five years he was assigned here, is known as an "apologist," or defender for the Catholic faith, clarifying the church's teachings on various issues.
His work on the Island included presenting educational programs on community television, speaking to community groups and conducting courses for parochial school teachers. He sees his national work with Priests for Life as an extension of that ministry.
The abortion issue in America in the 1990s, as Father Pavone sees it, is what slavery was to America in the years before the Civil War. The moral issue of abortion threatens to divide the country. just as the moral issue of slavery divided the country more than a century ago, he said.
"It's like slavery. In the end, America must know what is morally right because our very system of government will depend upon it," he said.
The veto of the bill to ban partial-birth abortions has helped educate and mobilize Catholics into action, Father Pavone said. Catholic clergy have urged the nation's estimated 50 million Catholics to inundate Congress with postcards demanding an override of the veto.
Catholics, Father Pavone said, have a moral obligation to become involved in the political process by voting, and by holding accountable those who have been elected to public office.
"Church teaching is clear. Catholics have an obligation to vote. When Catholics enter the voting booth, they do not cease to be Catholics and leave their moral convictions at the door," he said.
Father Pavone was ordained a priest of the New York Archdiocese eight years ago, but his pro-life "passion" was ignited in high school.
Growing up in Port Chester, a small town in upper Westchester County, he attended the local public high school, but was active in his parish youth ministry. One year. he and a group of teens took a bus trip to Washington, D.C., to attend the annual pro-life rally that takes place in January, on the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision which legalized abortion.
'I listened and I listened to the arguments on both sides and concluded that abortion is a fundamental contradiction of our country's most basic rights, and here was the Supreme Court saying it was perfectly OK to deny one group of our society its most basic right, the right to life." he said.
Years later, after his ordination, Father Pavone heard of a newly established organization, based on the West Coast, called Priests for Life. He brought the organization to the attention of Cardinal O'Connor, the archbishop of New York, who is known for his outspoken pro-life stance. According to Father Pavone, at about the same time Priests for Life was seeking a new national director, Cardinal O'Connor was seeking a priest of the archdiocese who could be his liaison for pro-life and could mobilize the clergy of the archdiocese.
Accordingly, Father Pavone said, "When I approached the cardinal about accepting the position at Priests for Life, he was more than receptive."
In his tenure as director of Priests for Life, Father Pavone said he has encountered a number of parish priests and pastors who are "unsure of just how far they can go" from the pulpit in preaching political responsibility to their parishioners.
Parishioners also are confused about the organization. "Quite often I'm asked, 'Well, isn't every priest pro-life?' Priests for Life is supposed to encourage Catholic clergy to do what they're already supposed to do—preach the pro-life message to parishioners— only do it better," Father Pavone said.
He dismisses those Catholic priests and lay members of the church who are critical of his organization for focusing exclusively on abortion and right-to-life issues.
"They'll say, 'Well, how come you don't address the issue of hunger, or homelessness, or nuclear war? Aren't these pro-life issues?' They are indeed, but the very right to be born is primary.
"And as for focusing on one issue, no one criticizes an organization like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) because it focuses on one primary issue," he said.
Since he took over as national director of Priests for Life, Father Pavone has expanded the organization to include nine full-time staff members—three of them, including his chief-of-staff Anthony DeStefano, who are from Staten Island—and dozens of volunteer workers. His goal is to bring other priests to work for the organization on a full-time basis.
But Father Pavone said his future work for Priests for Life is dependent upon Cardinal O'Connor's wishes and that he would return to parish work at the request of the cardinal, who so far has been supportive of his efforts.