JOSEPH CELLA is amazed by the success of the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast he founded and presides over, but he’s not astonished by it.
He said he knew from the first moment the idea occurred to him that it would be a success.
Cella is also founder of Fidelis, a Catholic-based advocacy organization established to help elect pro-life, pro-family and pro-religious liberty candidates to public office, support the confirmation of judges, and promote and defend laws faithful to the Constitution in Congress and the Courts.
He spoke with the Register after the prayer breakfast event April 13 in Washington, D.C.
How did the morning go?
It really was a humbling and smashing success. We were delighted by it. We were about 1,700 strong last night — we picked up more this morning, and probably reached 1,800 for breakfast. This was our fourth annual event, and it is going strong.
We had more people attending Mass than we ever had before last night. It’s a heartwarming and affirming sign that the Holy Spirit is upon the event and it’s spawning others here and around the world.
Is this a chance for Catholics to make a political mark on Washington, D.C.?
At its core, this event is about prayer and fellowship. There really is a wonderful, warm spirit here. Certainly, it’s in Washington, D.C., because we think the model of other Christian prayer breakfasts work. Heretofore there just really hasn’t been a forum for Catholics to gather together in solidarity and celebrate the Mass and enjoy wonderful fellowship.
This event gives Catholics a chance to invite Catholics from both sides of the aisle to an event especially for them.
We had a shot taken at us by a group that called us the Republican Catholic Strategy Breakfast. It’s such an uncharitable and degrading label of what this is. We’re about prayer and fellowship. You’d be in a tough position to find what strategies have come out of these events.
We had speakers on topics from theology — Scott Hahn and Father [Richard John] Neuhaus — to such topics as entertainment media. Raymond Arroyo was here from EWTN, we had Steve McEveety, producer of The Passion of the Christ, and [filmmaker] Joseph Campo.
But we do want to educate Catholics about public policy issues. William Saunders from the Family Research Council was here, and Carter Snead from Notre Dame, for instance.
It is about the application of faith to public policy. It is a forum where the core teachings of the Church are discussed and prayed about.
Is it mostly attended by political leaders?
We have a smattering of congressional staff and congressional members who attend. But mostly it is laity from 30-plus states around the country who organize it and attend.
One important political leader attends the breakfast regularly, though.
Yes. It’s President Bush’s third year in a row attending. After our first year when he realized that this had staying power, he has continued to come back. His brother is Catholic and he enjoys a great deal of comity with Catholics on those core social teachings of the sanctity of all human life and the definition of marriage as between one man and one woman. He is very close to us on a number of Catholic issues.
I’ve heard from his staff that he looks forward to this breakfast. It’s becoming the signature event for Catholics to gather across the country. I often wonder what might be murmuring within his own soul. He has a fondness for Catholics that certainly spins off from his fondness for his brother, who converted to the faith.
At the same time, some people might balk at the thought of Bush being close to Catholics as the Iraq war rages. At Easter, Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against the war again. How do you reconcile that discrepancy?
Our event is about prayer and fellowship. We had a wounded Iraq war veteran deliver the Pledge of Allegiance — a double amputee who’s Catholic. That was a very powerful moment. But as a public policy issue, the war issue doesn’t come up for our purposes at the breakfast.
The fact that the Pope opined on the war recently, and that it’s a different position from Bush’s — that doesn’t really have an impact on us. President Bush, at his core, defends and celebrates core Catholic social policy. The war question is different from issues like abortion and euthanasia. Those are core issues, while issues like war and the death penalty are matters of prudential judgment.
Pope Benedict expressed the view of most people of good will who don’t like war and particularly the tragic results for the innocent who are caught in the crossfire. That’s something we all agree on.
What did President Bush talk about this year?
This year he spoke about parochial education and the important role it plays, particularly in urban areas.
He also addressed stem-cell research issues. President Bush believes that a life is a life and the government should not use the most innocent of human life as a means to a scientific end. Technology should not be used to take human life and use it for utilitarian purposes.
On immigration reform, he said he feels it needs to be a combined effort to reform the existing system through having enforcement at the borders, but that we should also allow legal immigration to be open to a reasonable degree. He was applauded for that.
When did you first get the idea for a prayer breakfast?
I was in my office in January or February of 2001, whatever month the national prayer breakfast occurs. I had been reading the exhortations of John Paul the Great on how we should bring the Gospel “into the streets.” He said we should bring the faith, bring the Church, into our culture in ways that are new and suited to our times.
The idea for the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast hit me like a thunderclap. I felt certain that this would happen. It had to happen. It would happen and it would be a success. It was a very inspirational moment.
How did you follow up the inspiration?
I took it to prayer about how to take the first steps. One of the first steps I took was to reach out to my dear late friend Bowie Kuhn. He placed a call to Cardinal [Anthony] Bevilacqua who helped set up a meeting with Cardinal [Theodore] McCarrick.
One of the next calls I made was to Austin Ruse, at C-Fam [Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute], and we got together to talk about it. As I described the idea, his jaw dropped. It was another small but affirming sign. We rustled up some friends and the event was born. At the breakfast, we expected 700 and we crested at just over 1,000.
Apart from fellowship at the breakfast itself, what do you hope to accomplish with these events?
For one thing, more events of this kind. Our event has already spawned two state Catholic prayer breakfasts in California — one in northern California, one in southern California, and they draw 1,000 people each. We’re talking to people in Illinois who want to start one; also, in foreign countries. People in Lebanon and Scotland are both interested. I have even heard from someone interested in starting this in Southeast Asia.
I have people who come up to me who say they have been away from the Church, but this is a safe environment for them to come back and learn more. I get e-mails from people who have gone back to Church on a regular basis. I’ve heard from people of different Christian denominations who have pulled me aside and told me how it has furthered their faith journey.
Our goals for the breakfast are, first, for Catholics to further enrich their faith and second, for people to return to the fullness of the faith if they’re away. And we’re reaching our goals.