After 20 years, Priests for Life continues to save lives and change the culture . . .
Mention Priests for Life to the average Catholic, and he’s likely to recall the visiting priest who preached at his parish on Respect Life Sunday.
But to someone else, Priests for Life might mean a Rachel’s Vineyard retreat for those suffering from the pain of abortion, the face of Dr. Alveda King and her efforts to reach the African-American community with the pro-life message, or the Silent No More Awareness Campaign’s presence at the annual March for Life. All these ministries and others are part of a group that has become one of the world’s largest pro-life organizations.
Priests for Life began 20 years ago in San Francisco doing what it still does — equipping and sending priests to preach the pro-life message. Propelled by a desire to serve the pro-life movement, the group has expanded its mission and reach over the years, unifying pro-life efforts across the country in the process.
Father Frank Pavone is the man responsible for growing Priests for Life into the powerhouse it is today. A genial priest with an upbeat outlook, he has the steely resolve of a general engaged in battle.
In 1993, Fr. Pavone took the reins as Priests for Life’s first full-time national director with only $3,000, a tiny office and no staff. He began by traveling around the country to meet with pro-life leaders. “I would say to them, ‘How can we help you?’ — even though they were bigger than we were at that point,” he said.
In order to train priests to lead pro-life efforts in their communities, Fr. Pavone said he first had to know the movement inside and out — and then serve it. “The priest,” he explained, “is never ordained for himself. He is ordained to serve the people.”
As he worked with priests around the country, he said, “we found that we could be of service to lay groups by giving seminars, helping with post-abortion healing — all those things that tied in so naturally to the ministry of the priest.”
One of the first groups he encountered was Rachel’s Vineyard, a post-abortion training and healing ministry developed by psychotherapist Theresa Burke. Father Pavone met Burke in 1996 and later helped her with a retreat. At the time, the ministry was operating out of Burke’s home.
As Rachel’s Vineyard continued to grow, Priests for Life gave the ministry practical support and, about six years ago, proposed that it become part of Priests for Life. Such groups have made Priests for Life what it is today: a diverse, multi-faceted organization with a shared mission of spreading the pro-life message.
Jerry Horn, Priests for Life’s senior adviser and public relations director, describes the organization as “one-stop shopping for life issues from activism to education to ministry to healing and all the different areas that embody the pro-life movement.”
Its programs cover clergy and lay training, post-abortion healing, prayer, political responsibility and outreach to youth and the African-American and Hispanic communities. The group’s presence is pervasive. It’s at the United Nations as a nongovernmental organization; it’s on television and radio with its Defending Life series, seen and heard on EWTN and the Internet.
Executive director Janet Morana is co-founder of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign and a member of Legatus’ Morris County Chapter. She credits Fr. Pavone with making sure that Priests for Life is always developing new ways to communicate the pro-life message. “He saw what technology could do for our cause,” she said.
Aside from the group’s radio and television presence, they’ve made inroads on social networking sites like Facebook, added a YouTube presence and developed a sophisticated website.
Although the last two decades have seen Priests for Life bring other ministries and programs under its umbrella, Morana believes its most important accomplishment thus far has been its original work: helping clergy speak about abortion from the pulpit.
“The other side makes it seem like we’re picking on women and hurting women, but when they see one of our priests come in and preach, they notice that people don’t run out of the pews. Laypeople are hungry to hear our message,” she said.
Other pro-life leaders agree that Priests for Life has successfully mobilized thousands for the pro-life cause. “They’re activating and motivating ordinary Catholics and their parishes to truly make the sanctity of human life a major focus within their own volunteer life and within their parishes,” said Peggy Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International and a member of Legatus’ board of governors.
In addition, Hartshorn said, the group has brought Catholics and other Christians together around the life issue.
Horn noted that Priests for Life has also helped unify the pro-life movement to focus on building a culture of life. Horn, who has worked in the pro-life movement since 1983, said one of his greatest frustrations was disunity in the movement.
“In the last eight to 10 years, Fr. Frank and his leadership have been able to draw those together who might not have been together before. There is a greater force of unity today, and in that unity is great strength.”
David Bereit, an evangelical Protestant who is national director of 40 Days for Life, agreed. “When you look at the diversity of the movement, I don’t think any other organization or leader has been as successful at bringing together all the different facets of the movement to make sure they’re moving in the same direction and in communication with each other.”
Bereit said he met Fr. Pavone a few times before trying to expand 40 Days from a few independent local campaigns into a national event. But when Bereit finally bounced the idea off him, Fr. Frank “was unbelievably encouraging. He said, ‘Not only do I think it’s a good idea, but let me know if there’s anything we can do to help.’”
When 40 Days went national and then international, Bereit said Priests for Life helped promote the events through EWTN, YouTube and Silent No More.
“I’m confident that we would not have seen the growth we have had were it not for Fr. Frank and the Priests for Life team. They’ve provided constant encouragement to us.”
Bereit said he also appreciates Fr. Pavone’s spirituality and focus on the importance of keeping God at the center of pro-life efforts. “He and Priests for Life are involved in political and educational awareness, but they understand that first and foremost, they are involved in a spiritual battle.”
Dr. Thomas Hilgers, founder of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb., said he believes Priests for Life’s spiritual component is crucial to the success of building the culture of life. “This organization works tirelessly in many areas, yet the importance of prayer is always front and center,” he said.
Father Pavone is keenly aware of the spiritual warfare that he and his team are engaged in. Although it involves real people, he said he knows that the enemy is ultimately Satan.
“I often say in my talks that the abortion advocate, the abortionist, the pro-abortion politician, are not in their essence our enemies because these are our brothers and sisters,” he explained. “But they are captive to the enemy, carrying out his work. The works they advance are part of the enemy’s assault. But we separate those works from the individuals as people because we want to liberate them from the enemy and see them come over to the cause of life. And we will welcome them when they do.”
Judy Roberts is a Legatus Magazine staff writer.