Recently Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, sat down with me to talk about the early years of Priests for Life; how the pandemic is impacting the ministry and the 20th anniversary of the death of a pro-life giant.
Here’s a transcript of the interview, slightly edited for clarity.
Leslie Palma: How has the Coronavirus pandemic impacted the work of Priests for Life?
Father Pavone: It certainly has changed life for all of us, in particular for me and for our Priests for Life Team, including Janet Morana and Alveda King; the Rachel’s Vineyard Team; Bryan Kemper, Father Denis Wilde, our Associate Director, and all of us who travel and speak constantly.
We’re on planes and several times a week, and all of a sudden, everything started getting canceled. There were many, many events planned for the latter part of March, April and May. Even into June now, many of these events are being canceled. So, not being up in planes all the time, personally, is a big change for me. Being in person with the pro-life activists around the country and the world is something I miss.
However, the good thing about all this for Priests for Life is that we already had a very big footprint in online broadcasting. I mean what we’re doing now on our Facebook page, our podcasting, our many video and social media platforms, we had already established an expertise in that area.
We’re able to reach very large audiences. I offer the Mass every day live, on www.Endabortion.TV and our other platforms. We’re also doing live educational programs and rebroadcasting interviews from our archives.
The work of Priests for Life has not stopped. The only thing really that has changed is travel. But even with that, I was scheduled to speak at the Heartbeat International Conference in April. I speak at that conference every year but this time I was one of the keynote speakers and my topic was on the 2020 elections. Heartbeat decided to do the conference virtually, and so I was able to still give my keynote address.
Our supporters, our donors continue to be faithful. Of course, there are some people who find it financially very difficult at the present time. But they’ve stayed faithful because they realize – what we all need to realize – is that this is, not, at its core, an economic problem that we’re facing. It’s not a failed economy. It’s a medical problem.
Thank God and also thank President Trump and his economic advisors because our economy was so strong when we went into this crisis. We will rebound.
Leslie Palma: So, in other words, your staff is not enjoying a long vacation?
Father Pavone: No, no, no. No, no. And some of them are working here in our Florida headquarters. We have a very big facility and so, for example, to get the mail and to send out mail and to fill orders and to do broadcasting, we’ve got various staff coming in for those essential items. And otherwise, our staff is working from home and we’re having the daily briefing on “Go to Meeting” and keeping in close contact.
Leslie Palma I want to talk about the origins of Priests for Life, and how you got involved. You were originally ordained for the New York Archdiocese by Cardinal John O’Connor, who assigned you to a parish. Seven years later, he gave you permission to lead Priests for Life. Was that his idea or yours?
Father Pavone: It was my idea. I was very happy in the parish, St. Charles on Staten Island. It was a very large and flourishing parish. There were four of us priests there. It was delightful, really. It was a great place to start out as a priest.
And along with the parish work, I was doing Bible teaching and giving different courses in various programs in the Archdiocese of New York, including its Master’s Degree program in Theology and different Bible studies in different parishes. And I was doing a lot of teaching, which I love to do as well.
But the pro-life work was my main passion, and that was growing. I came to the point where I was convinced, in conscience, that I had to give myself full time to protecting the unborn from abortion. All my time. All my energy. All my ministry. All my life. I experienced a call within the call of the priesthood. A call to pro-life within that call.
And actually, my call to pro-life to involvement was intertwined right from the very, very beginning of me thinking about the priesthood. It all happened in my final year of high school.
So, I went to Cardinal O’Connor. He had been fanning the flames of my pro-life passion because he, himself, was on fire for the unborn. He made it very clear publicly to the whole nation that abortion is issue number one. That led to the happy circumstance that when I did go to him to ask to do this work full time, he said yes. And he gave me his encouragement and his guidance all through the years that followed.
Leslie Palma: Priests for Life now is one of the largest pro-life organizations in the world. How big was it when you first got started, and how did it get funded?
Father Pavone: When we first got started there was no staff, no office and no budget to speak of. When the cardinal released me to do full-time pro-life work, I was the one and only person who was full time with Priests for Life. Priests for Life had gotten started already by a group of priests in California who had the same idea as I had, that there needed to be something to encourage priests to deal with this number one moral issue of abortion.
They got a newsletter started and they got the organization on a solid footing both as a corporation and as a ministry in the church. I joined up with them when I found out about them, and we were in close communication.
As it turns out, at the same time that I was going to ask permission from the cardinal to do pro-life work full time, it just so happened that the priest in California who was the first president of Priests for Life called me and said he was going into the military as a chaplain. They were going to need a new director of the organization. He asked if I would be interested. I said yes and that it was perfect timing, because I was about to ask Cardinal O’Connor for permission to do full-time pro-life work.
Since I was based in New York, the cardinal told me to establish the office in New York. I knew of a parish with some spare rooms and the pastor invited me to use a little office there. I said yes.
I remember, the first day, sitting down at the desk in that office. I didn’t know how to use a computer or a fax machine. Email was not yet a part of daily life. I sat down put my head down and began praying. And I said, “Lord, now we begin. Now we begin.” I just had to start it from scratch.
When the priests in California officially handed over the reins of the organization to me, they gave me a check for $3,000, which they had raised through tax deductible donations. They had the set the corporation up as a 501(c)(3). People could become donors.
So, in the ceremony that we had in the cathedral in San Francisco, they handed me this check for $3,000.And they said, “Father Frank, take this and defend life.” So, I brought it back to New York and deposited it in a newly established Priests for Life bank account.
And then I invested my own money in it. I took my entire savings and I just started. Any bills that came up, printing, traveling, office, rental of the office, anything and everything relating to this new ministry, I just paid for myself. And I didn’t think twice about that because it was like this is my passion now. I want to end abortion. I’m going to give my life to this.
When you come to a point where you know there’s something you want to give your life to, you don’t think twice about giving your money to it. In doing that, I was able to start hiring some people. And then they showed me what kind of organizational structure this ministry could and should have, including a fund-raising program that we have to this day, that simply relies on direct mail appeal to faithful pro-life people around the country.
Leslie Palma: When I was about to start work at Priests for Life in 2009, I told a priest whom I respected and really admired, about my new job. And he said, “Oh them.” He wouldn’t elaborate on any specific criticism he might have had, but I always wondered why a Catholic priest find fault with a pro-life ministry?
Father Pavone: I find fault with somebody who has a problem with an organization but doesn’t have the clarity and courage to say what the problem is. People are willing to criticize but not willing to back up their criticism.
I have seen, heard and experienced this from all directions. And unfortunately, it’s not uncommon in our society. It’s not uncommon in the church. We can’t read this particular priest’s mind but I can speculate as to what problem a priest might have with a pro-life ministry.
It’s not with the idea of fighting abortion. I mean there are exceptions even to that. There are pro-choice clergy, unfortunately, even within the Catholic community. But I’m talking about men who have become priests because they want to be sons of the church. They want to be representatives of the church. They’re ordained to represent the church. And they, by and large, they accept the teachings of the church. So they’re against abortion but they will say that I’m too aggressive against abortion.
And I’ve actually had that word used about me by some bishops too. Too aggressive on abortion. And my response, I try to say it very politely, as well — when abortion stops being aggressive on these babies, then I’ll stop being aggressive on abortion. But we’re talking about mass murders here. We’re talking about a holocaust. So there’s no such thing as being too aggressive on abortion.
Some people say “Oh them” because they’re reacting to ideas that they’ve gotten about us, that are simply false. Let me give you a couple of examples.
I’ve led lots of protests across the country, protesting abortion on the streets in very public demonstrations. And some people have this stereotype in their mind that that’s hateful. It’s violence. Well, talk to Martin Luther King, Jr., about the value of protest. And we have his niece right here on our team, as you know, Alveda King. Those things are part of the fabric of America. I mean protest is a beautiful thing. It’s a wonderful thing and it’s a peaceful thing. But some don’t like that.
Some people think that that’s all we do, or they might hear me advocating for political pro-life progress. I don’t know any other way to change laws than to elect people who are going to pass the right laws, right? So, we have political advocacy.
There’s a phenomenon I call snapshot thinking. Someone gets an impression of you at a certain time, and in a certain circumstance, and that snapshot of that one moment in time in that limited circumstance, becomes the definition of who you are.
So people might see me at a protest, or they might hear me make a political statement and they decide that’s who they are. No, it’s not who we are. If you want to know who we are, take the time and trouble to get to know who we are and you’ll see that we run, for example, the world’s largest ministry of compassionate, effective healing for those who have had abortions.
We have Rachel’s Vineyard under the umbrella of our Priests for Life family of ministries. Silent No More. The compassion we work on every single day, for those who have had abortions, and even for the former abortionists, they come to us for healing, for peace. Our ministry really is multifaceted.
Some people think all we do is show pictures of aborted babies. One time, in the Archdiocese of Boston, years and years ago, someone in the Respect Life office said they couldn’t have me at a parish there because I show pictures of aborted babies.”
Of course, if they wanted to know what I do, they could have asked me, or they could have asked the hundreds of other parishes that have had me in to preach. The priests that do have me come in are absolutely delighted at what happens. A compassionate, clear message given to the people from the readings for that Sunday that reflect the teachings of the church.
If you want to see what I preach in my pro-life homilies, my book called Proclaiming the Message of Life has the fruit of 25 years of experience of preaching on this practically every day. You’ll see that my preaching is not the stereotype that some people imagined, that I would come marching into the church with a big picture of an aborted baby. It’s ridiculous.
Then you have the false accusations everyone who’s in public life has to face. I once had a bishop who wasn’t very favorable to me, and he started raising questions publicly about our finances. I honestly don’t know what his concern was, because he was never specific. But be that as it may, we never had the slightest problem or accusation of anything being done wrong.
As a matter of fact, every year we get a healthy financial audit. We have people on our board who are Wall Street executives who know the world of finance better than they know the back of their hands. And they advise us day-by-day. We’ve got a fantastic team. Everything is done according to the books. And we get these great audits, and we even had a financial report come from the Vatican because we had them help us out at various stages of our ministry. And they agreed that we are well-administered financially.
So, and yet, nevertheless, people, when they think negatively of somebody, that negative thought takes on a life of its own, apparently.
Nobody has to prove their innocence. Like I said, that bishop that didn’t like me said, “Oh well, you know, we have questions, about your finances.” Well, you know what? I could say the same thing about him or about anybody. I have questions about your finances, too. That doesn’t mean I’m saying you did anything wrong or that I think you did anything wrong. But I have questions about your finances. Yeah, well, we can all say that.
The point of the matter is, okay, is there something that you think we did wrong? Well, no. And in fact, right after that, the vicar general of that diocese had to send out a public letter saying that the diocese had not said that I had done anything wrong.
So, who knows what the priest who said “Oh them” had heard about me. But years have gone by and hopefully he’s learned more about us that will make him say something more positive.
Leslie Palma: We’ve mentioned Cardinal O’Connor a couple times in this conversation and the 20th anniversary of his death was on May 3. He was a major influence in your life. What was it like for you, personally, to lose him and what impact did it have on your ministry?
Father Pavone: As it turned out, the day he died I happened to be at EWTN. I think that was a gift from the Cardinal. It was a great opportunity. In the homily of the Mass I celebrated, and which was televised, I was able to share with the world his example, his teaching, the way he influenced me. No one has filled the vacuum that he left. And so, we miss him personally.
I have a great joy of knowing his sister, Mary Ward. She lives in Philadelphia, where she and her brother, the Cardinal, and their other siblings grew up. Knowing her for herself is a great blessing. And then having that connection, it’s a living connection with the cardinal. That’s a great source of joy.