LOS ANGELES — How do you build a real culture of life? Not an abstraction or a theory — but a real, living, breathing culture of life?
Well, meet Kathleen Domingo, the Archdiocese of Los Angelesʼ new coordinator for life — a woman on fire to make the gospel of life a lived, concrete experience using the methods of the New Evangelization.
“I want people to understand what is actually meant by a culture of life,” Domingo said.
Domingoʼs position represents a major change in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles under Archbishop Jose Gomezʼs leadership. After more than a decade of no respect-life leadership, due to budget cuts in the archdiocese, Archbishop Gomez brought it back in the new Office of Life, Justice and Peace. The name of the office itself suggests a message that the previous separation between pro-life advocacy and social-justice advocacy is over.
Thatʼs where Domingo comes in as the coordinator for life. With the full support of Archbishop Gomez, the married mother of two has dived into her role with creativity and passion to create a new generation of Catholics for whom a consistent ethic of life is second nature.
If a silver lining can be found in the archdiocese’s decade-long absence of life-related leadership, it is the grassroots Catholic pro-life activists’ decision “not going to sit around and wait” for marching orders, said Domingo. Their initiative is an advantage to Domingo, who now is tasked with helping to coordinate and support those grassroots energies, which she keeps discovering through town-hall meetings throughout the archdiocese.
“I love hearing what people are doing,” Domingo says. “We have people starting activities in the parishes and doing a lot of wonderful things.” She points to initiatives for adopting foster kids, fighting human trafficking and starting Project Rachel in parishes.
Domingo has a passion to make this energy come alive throughout the archdiocese, the inspiration of which she received from her own family: She prayed with her mother in front of abortion businesses as a child. Then later, attending a public high school, she saw the choices her classmates around her were making, and she took a public stand in defense of life when Planned Parenthood’s representatives came to talk to students.
“That’s really the first time I spoke up on my own without an adult,” she said.
Building a consistent ethic of life, she said, begins with youth — and Domingo is determined to use the methods of the New Evangelization to create this generation's respect-life Catholics.
“It requires us to put out the beauty and power of the truth that is attractive to people,” she said.
Inspiring a Respect-Life Generation
Her first major initiative involved working together with the superintendents of Catholic schools and the Office of New Evangelization to pull off the archdiocese’s Respect Life Week. Together, they created a curriculum, program and resources to give middle- and high-school students and teachers an engaged, active experience in what a consistent ethic of life looks and feels like — all part of a program to raise up a whole new generation of young leaders for life.
Respect Life Week lasted from Sept. 30 through Oct. 4, and Domingo says the initiative was a success in 50 archdiocesan schools. Some, she said, have been “celebrating it like crazy,” with Masses, rallies, lunchtime activities, classroom decorating and hands-on projects. The capstone of these efforts is an event Oct. 9 that will send more than 5,000 students on a field trip with Archbishop Gomez called “Christian Service 4 Life.”
“I want to just immerse these students in a discussion about life issues: a whole week of thinking about life through the lens of the dignity of each human person," she said. "And maybe something will click, and maybe some connections will be made.”
Domingo, however, shared a thought-provoking premise: Students get the theory of being pro-life, but what they really need is the experience that makes respect for life a core of their being.
“Letʼs assume that they are all pro-life,” Domingo says. “Letʼs just give them the tools to go and succeed in building the culture of life.”
This “immersion” program of Respect Life Week means getting students involved in service projects that affirm that each person is loved by God, whether that person is a person with Down syndrome, a prisoner or homeless. She pointed out that students involved in the “I Am Whole Life” Imago Dei project reach out to the homeless, look them in the eye, and tell them that the image of God is in them.
“Weʼre giving them the opportunity to see what they can do practically, locally for life — to self-identify as leaders for life,” Domingo says.
Social Networking for Life and Justice
But building the vibrant pro-life community Domingo imagines also means uniting Catholics committed to spreading the gospel of life over the vast distances of the L.A. Archdiocese. Thatʼs where 21st-century technology and social networking play a key role in Domingoʼs plan.
“Our archdiocese is the largest in the country. Itʼs huge,” she says. “There is no way that we can pull all our leaders together in an effective manner on a regular basis.”
But the digital age now opens all sorts of possibilities to building the relationships that physical distance once hindered. Domingo set up a Facebook page in April, and while it is slow, steady progress building a socially networked community, she hopes the page helps keep Catholics informed and also provides them a place to share life initiatives coming out of their parishes as well.
“I want to share with people examples of the positive things that they can do for life,” she says. “Itʼs also a wonderful way for us to keep in touch and build that community.”
One of Domingoʼs initiatives could turn into a real game changer in building a culture of life, not only for L.A., but the whole country. It is a smartphone app under development by a group called Options United that will link together 74 pro-life pregnancy centers (referrals are 100% in line with Catholic teaching) in the four southern California dioceses with the broader pro-life community. Once beta-testing is complete, it should roll out in December and be available as both an iPhone and Android app.
The idea is to get everyone in L.A.ʼs pro-life community, from high school and college students to older adults using smartphones, to download the app and register with their local parish or church and their local pregnancy centers.
“This is the first app that is asking people to commit to action: to donate, volunteer and unite,” says Domingo. “Action for life becomes personal and immediate.”
How would it work in practice? Domingo explains that a counselor meeting with a woman in a crisis pregnancy could send a message through the app asking for prayers. Potentially, thousands of people could respond by saying prayers are on the way. The counselor could later send a picture of the baby they helped live through their prayers.
Supposing a church wants to donate supplies to a pregnancy center, a person at a center can share what the current needs are. It envisions a new kind of respect-life solidarity never before experienced — and Domingo is hoping that a successful debut in L.A. will help the app eventually go national.
“This is powerful, especially for youth and young adults, who live with their phones and are so motivated by immediate feedback,” Domingo says.
The New Solidarity: Pro-Life and Social Justice
Domingo agrees that, for too long, Catholics have been divided on social issues along “pro-life” and “social justice” lines — wounds in the fabric of Catholic social action.
But Domingoʼs efforts are aimed at helping Catholics, especially at the parish level, realize that those who work for justice for the unborn, the disabled, the elderly and those who work for justice for the poor, disadvantaged and abused are all working on the same team.
“Weʼre trying to help them see it is not ʻeither-or,ʼ but it is ʻboth-and,ʼ” she said. “There is no reason that we canʼt all stand shoulder to shoulder doing this work.”
Domingo recognizes that different levels of moral gravity exist on various life and social-justice issues. But she wants Catholics to see that the same spirit animates them: a Gospel-rooted love and concern for the human person.
The pregnant woman in need of help, she explains, shows how they both have to work together. Not only does that woman need support for her baby, but she also may need food and shelter, health care or a job. And this example given by Domingo shows how what are commonly called “pro-life” and “social justice” ministries are really two sides of the same coin: the Catholic consistent ethic of life.
“I think this is a better model to rally people,” she says. There are only so many hours in the day, she points out, and people need to work in those areas where God has given them a passion.
But she wants them to talk with each other, collaborate and share their experiences. Ultimately, she wants every Catholic to realize that whatever the work, they are all on the same team as ambassadors for life, justice and peace.
She says, “More than anything I would like to see people living that.”
Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.