[We at the communications office of Priests for Life have decided it would be nice to give you a glimpse of what it’s like working side by side with the world’s most well-known pro-life priest.]
Four months after I went to work for Priests for Life, I found myself chasing Father Frank Pavone, the organization’s National Director, across a muddy park in San Francisco.
Ahead of me were three students from Thomas More College who were assigned to accompany Father Frank at the Walk for Life West Coast in January 2010. They couldn’t keep up with him either.
This chase scene took place the day after the March for Life in D.C., a day that included the March itself, six or seven speaking engagements, the annual Rose Dinner, and a red-eye flight to San Francisco. We got to our hotel with enough time to sleep for three hours before the whole thing started again, on Pacific Time. In the morning, I limped down to the lobby in a desperate hunt for coffee. And there was Father Frank, fresh as a daisy, finishing up his breakfast (he doesn’t drink coffee) and catching up with a priest he had met years before. I prayed for stamina, and many Starbucks along the way.
At 52, Father Frank Pavone has the indefatigable stamina of a teenager. He draws this energy from his interactions with people, from cardinals to custodians. At massive gatherings, like the Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the night before the March for Life, Father Frank is often the last man standing. I mean that in the literal sense: At the Mass in 2010, those who had accompanied Father Frank were sitting on the floor outside the sanctuary long after the Mass had ended, waiting for Father Frank to finish greeting every last person there. And then he went to talk to the hundreds of young people camping out for the night in the basilica’s basement. It was midnight before he left that 6 o’clock Mass.
I don’t think he ever forgets meeting someone. At a book signing in the basilica earlier in that long day-before-the-March, a father and daughter from the Midwest greeted Father Frank and said they had heard him speak at the alternative commencement Father Frank led at Notre Dame in 2009, when pro-abortion President Obama was the official commencement speaker.
“Didn’t you give me a book,” Father Frank asked the dad. Turns out, the father had forgotten giving Father Frank an art book. Father Frank remembered. Chances are, if you have spoken to Father Frank even for a few minutes, he has written down your name and number and he will know you next time you meet.
“Father Frank carries a pen and a small pad with him everywhere he goes. I was told that from the very beginning of his pro-life ministry, he always collected names,” said Mark Valonzo, chief operations officer for Priests for Life. “People might see Father Frank as he takes people’s names and contact information. What they don’t see is the very complex and comprehensive database system that he himself designed and created that serves as a central repository for these data.”
The day of the 2010 March for Life, we waited in a roped-off area backstage for the March for Life to begin. There was a heated VIP tent, with plenty of chairs inside. We stood outside, in the cold. Father Frank was mingling. He spoke to people who walked by on the street; he greeted the crowds pressed up against the fence in front of the stage. When the marchers finally assembled on the street, a group of young people chanted his name. He responded by shaking every hand he could reach. He’s not running for office; he genuinely likes people.
Janet Morana, executive director of Priests for Life, recalled that when Father Frank became the national director of Priests for Life in 1993, “They gave him a check for $3,000 and said ‘go defend life.’ After that was gone, he blew through his entire savings, all the money he had saved since he was a teenager. He has never asked for it back. He never wanted it back.” Father Frank has never drawn a salary as national director.
Father Frank’s extensive travels – it’s not unusual for him to make four different trips a week -- always bring him back to Priests for Life’s Staten Island headquarters. He rises at 5 a.m. or earlier, celebrates Mass for himself in the chapel, makes his own breakfast, and has been at his desk long before his first staff meeting at 7:30 a.m. He never takes an actual vacation, although at least one day a year he likes to go to an amusement park and ride rollercoasters. He is never out of clerical garb, except when on the coasters.
A few years ago, Fr. Frank was asked to be a speaker on a pro-life cruise. He would accept it only if he were guaranteed that there would be adequate working space. When he wasn’t speaking, he was working on his laptop. When everyone else went ashore, he was working on his laptop. The same is true on all his other travels. All those hours in all those airports are spent, laptop open, working away. When traveling with him, I open my laptop just to avoid looking like a slacker.
Don’t assume because he is away from the office so much that he is any way a hands-off leader. I’m convinced Smart phones and wireless networks were conceived with Father Frank in mind.
“For me, one of the most important traits of a good leader is his work ethics,” Valonzo said. He described conference calls that start at 10 p.m. and end at midnight, followed up with a 3 a.m. email from Father Frank.
“He does not just serve as our leader,” Valonzo said. “He serves as our inspiration.”
“He’s unstoppable,” said the IT Department’s Ruben Obregon. “When it comes to protecting the unborn, he will not let anything get in his way.”
Father Frank is ready to help at a moment’s notice. When he learned that a Canadian baby was about to be disconnected from the ventilator that was helping him breathe, Father Frank committed, on the spot, to getting Baby Joseph out of that hospital. He found a Catholic hospital in the U.S. willing to take the baby, and found a charter airline company willing to donate the specially equipped air ambulance to transport him. And Father Frank was aboard that late-night flight. The hospital was planning to disconnect Baby Joseph on March 17. Nearly six months later, he remains at home with his parents and older brother.
Father Frank is a firm believer in networking, and he is convinced the only way to fight abortion is with a united front in the pro-life movement. He organizes regular meetings to bring together pro-life leaders from dozens of organizations, and at the monthly meetings for his staff and pastoral team, there is always a special guest. Visiting the Staten Island office in the last year have been Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee; Kristan Hawkins, executive director of Students for Life of America; Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue; Brandi Swindell, president of Generation Life; Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life, and Allan Parker, president of The Justice Foundation.
Father Frank is as comfortable at the altar of a Catholic Church as he is in the pulpit of any other house of worship. After he delivered the keynote address in an evangelical Christian church in Maryland recently to kickoff a weeklong protest of late-term abortionist LeRoy Carhart, the Rev. Pat Mahoney of the Christian Defense Coalition, noted that Father Frank could easily be mistaken for a Baptist preacher. His passion and commitment -- to the unborn, to those who have been hurt by abortion, to the elderly and the frail who seek only to live their lives to their natural end – come through loud and clear, whatever the venue. That passion is an inspiration to everyone at Priests for Life.
“Father Frank pushed me hard to get better,” said Victor Manabat of the IT team. “ Our unborn brothers and sisters deserves the very best that I have to offer.”
“To him,” Mrs. Morana said, “this is the most important work on Earth.”