(SH) - The Catholic Diocese of Amarillo is not the kind of place that makes national news very often. Yet the bishop of the Texas high plains did precisely that in 1981 when he took an idealistic - some said foolhardy - stand to defend the sanctity of life. Bishop Leroy Matthiesen urged workers at the nearby Pantex plant to walk away from their jobs assembling nuclear weapons.
Peace activists cheered. Big-league journalists rushed to cover the story.
A quarter of a century later, the tiny Diocese of Amarillo is back in the news and, once again, its leaders are speaking out on the sanctity of life. This time, the conservative Bishop John Yanta is providing a home for a new Catholic society dedicated to activism against abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty and other symptoms of what the late Pope John Paul II called the "culture of death."
The priest who leads the new Missionaries of the Gospel of Life society isn't expecting media cheers this time, although he believes there is a connection between these life-and-death issues, from nuclear bombs to unborn babies.
"All human life is sacred and whatever the threat to it is, the church must be there speaking out," said Father Frank Pavone, director of the existing Priests For Life Network and founder of the new organization for priests, deacons and laity. "Silence is not an option when lives are at stake."
It may seem odd for this project to be based in such a remote location, in a 26-county diocese with only 49 parishes spread across 25,800 square miles. Amarillo certainly represents a change for Pavone, who grew up near New York City and was ordained by the late Cardinal John O'Connor into that powerful 397-parish archdiocese.
Rome has given the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life approval to train and direct the ministries of its own priests. The society hopes to claim Mother Teresa and John Paul II, author of the Evangelium Vitae ("Gospel of Life") encyclical, as its patron saints.
"The idea of a new religious community founded for the purpose of working to protect human life may seem like a sign of contradiction - but it may just be what the world of today needs," wrote Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. "The call to protect life is ... the very basis of our recognition of human rights."
Pavone said 50 men have already attended retreats to learn more about the society, while 300 have inquired by email. Meanwhile, 15 priests are talking to their bishops about joining.
"I do not know how large we will be. It could be 40 priests or it could be 400. There will also be deacons and lay people involved," said Pavone.
While some of these priests may be based in parishes, most will travel nationwide taking part in protests and teaching clergy and laity how to lead demonstrations and to counsel women who have had abortions. In effect, they will do what Pavone has done with Priests For Life, including his high-profile work with the parents of Terri Schiavo, who died last March in Florida after her feeding tube was removed.
This is precisely what worries Planned Parenthood leaders, who have circulated an Institute for Democracy Studies report claiming that Pavone and his associates have consistently presented a "moderate" face to the public while supporting clinic blockades and other illegal protest activities. "Priests for Life say they oppose violence, but their actions send a different message," according to the report.
The Missionaries of the Gospel of Life will continue to be committed to public marches and prayer vigils, with a renewed emphasis on nonviolence, order and the leadership of trained clergy, said Pavone, during a visit to Washington, D.C., for last week's annual March For Life.
"If a priest or a bishop comes out and leads a protest or a prayer service, then you don't have a leadership vacuum that can lead to trouble," he said.
"People are going to protest against abortion. This issue is that central to our faith. Would you rather have protests by trained people who are well organized and have responsible leaders or would you rather have protests that are random and chaotic? That's the question people on the other side need to be asking."
Terry Mattingly (www.tmatt.net) directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities.
Note: Priests for Life has always taken a strong stand against all violence. Click here for more information.