The blessing of spiritual fatherhood
in the pro-life movement
By Joan Batista and Kevin Burke
The Christian community throughout the centuries has proclaimed the sanctity of the child in the womb, created in the image and likeness of God. Sidewalk prayer counseling and vigils at abortion centers are a popular way to give public witness to our faith, while reaching out to women and couples who need support.
To highlight the invisible spiritual dimension of this work of mercy, we interviewed pro-life activist friends from across our great nation so they could share their insights and experience. Each individual shares decades of leadership experience in pro-life work. A consistent impression emerges regarding the essential role of clergy and ministers in front-line, pro-life advocacy.
The common perception they shared: The presence of a clergy/minister brings greater peacefulness, more conversations with women take place, and more lives are turned around to choose life.
“It is very important that priests show up at sidewalk prayer and witnessing events at abortion centers,” writes Camille Giglio, founder of California Right to Life. “I believe their presence gives greater graces and spiritual support. Priests are the best witnesses for the passerby, pregnant women and sometimes their family members driving into the abortion center parking lot.” She is a parishioner in the Diocese of Oakland.
In the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Nora Dougherty has an impressive record of helping women and couples at abortion centers, scheduled for abortion, to reconsider.
“The sidewalk work in front of abortion mills is greatly enhanced by the presence of clergy,” she said. “Saving babies is a spiritual battle. We have to be there in prayer. We must be able to offer a woman practical assistance to help her with whatever problems she may be having. We are often the only person standing between a helpless child and an abortionist who is waiting to take his or her life.”
Sadly, many pro-life advocates are starving for support from their religious leaders. Pro-life advocates can feel discouraged and forgotten when they fail to see any private or public support for their ministry.
“I have often neared despair trying to gather the involvement of fellow believers. I have had many pastors hint at wanting to join me ‘vigiling’ for at least one time, but only one has,” said Larry Garber, president of Maytown Stands for Life, an Evangelical Christian and 30-year veteran of the sidewalk. He writes from York and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
The blessing of spiritual fatherhood
Fortunately, many churches and religious leaders have stepped up their interest in front-line, pro-life ministries.
In the Archdiocese of San Francisco, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone launched the spring 2021 40 Days for Life Vigil by presiding at Mass then leading a procession to the vigil site where he performed a Minor Exorcism.
“With 40 Days for Life Lenten vigil, some people are moved to offer counsel to the women, even though that is optional,” Ron Konopaski from San Francisco writes. “It is more about prayer and fasting. Last week, a couple decided not to abort their baby. We have come to believe that from our prayer, our guardian angels are assisting the guardian angels of the women to spare the lives of their babies.”
His pastor, Rev. Joseph Illo, of Star of the Sea Parish, is a holy man who has nurtured a respect for life and support for pro-life advocacy in his parish. Many who participate in the 40 Days vigils attend his parish. He is frequently present at the vigil site. Intentions for the unborn and their mothers are included at daily Mass.
In the Oakland Diocese, Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ writes pastoral letters to encourage participation in local 40 Days for Life vigils. In May 2018, Bishop Barber led a Eucharistic Procession from St. Mary Church to the vigil site in Walnut Creek. Last month, The Catholic Voice reported he prayed at the 40 Days for Life vigil in El Cerrito.
The bishop’s support is bearing good fruit. A 40 Days campaign was launched in Walnut Creek in 2015, with the support and encouragement of Very Rev. Lawrence D’Anjou, who brought together many parish groups to participate. The vigil site is at an abortion facility just two blocks from St. Mary School.
Similarly, an abortion facility in neighboring Concord is just a few blocks from Queen of All Saints School. Sidewalk prayer warriors have visited the site for many years. With the support of Father D’Anjou, it now hosts its own 40 Days vigil.
St. Mary Parish has maintained a dynamic sidewalk presence at the abortion clinic. This was through the consistent leadership of the parish Respect Life Ministry led by Jim Crowley.
“We have had a few priests come to our vigil,” Linda Mertes, coordinator of the Friends for Life Tri Valley initiative, said of the 40 Days for Life Vigil in Walnut Creek. “Father Lawrence [D’Anjou] in particular has been coming for years. He also supports the Concord 40 Days vigil. I know it helps morale to have a priest out there. It helps us to feel much more supported, backed by our Church, spiritually protected.”
Proclaiming the Gospel of Life
Joan Batista shared her appreciation for previous parish pastors, and the mentorship of Rev. Frank Pavone in the development of her pro-life ministry. In a recent piece in Catholic Online, Father Pavone, founder of Priests for Life, shares how the reality of the resurrection of Jesus compels the Church and her leaders to participate in prolife advocacy:
“The influence of the Church on the world, therefore, is the influence of a community which already participates in victory over death. That influence moves the structures and choices of society away from death and destruction, and toward the affirmation, in word and deed, of the precious gift of life.”
This slice of real life from the national Catholic and Evangelical Christian pro-life community reveals the great blessing when clergy and pastors participate in front-line, pro-life ministry.
We hope and pray it will inspire other religious leaders to respond to the call of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, to share the gift of their spiritual fatherhood to bless and protect the children in the womb at risk of abortion: … Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for Me. (Matthew 25:40)
Joan Batista is co-founder of ethosca.org, which provides conferences on human dignity, sexual integrity, relationships and respect for self and others. Kevin Burke, LSW is an author, pastoral associate of Priests for Life, and co-founder of Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries.