Ever since he was a teen-ager, Michael Gaworski has been a pro-life voice in the St. Paul-Minneapolis area.
Paradoxically, for the past 10 years he has motivated others without being able to speak or even move.
In what some people see as his most fruitful pro-life period, Michael now communicates his message silently from the center of a network of caregivers — family, friends, and eight men who, like him, belong to a fledgling community of religious brothers in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.
The seeds of all this were sown in 1979, when Michael — then a college student at St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul — and fellow seminarian Paul O'Donnell struck up a friendship. The two engaged in a variety of pro-life activities — sidewalk counseling, prayer rallies, political organizing, even civil disobedience. Together they launched Pro-Life Action Ministries, a direct-action organization that now numbers some 20,000 members.
Eventually discerning that God was not calling them to the diocesan priesthood, both men with a few others who felt drawn to St. Francis and his way of life began living and praying together. “The pro-life brothers,” many people called them.
The Franciscan Brothers of Peace, as the group is known today, is now a “public association of the faithful,” following its own statutes and the Rule of St. Francis.
While the Brothers' priorities are prayer and community life, they also serve the spiritually and materially poor. Their activities include providing a home for “international survivors” referred to them by the Minneapolis-based Center for Victims of Torture, working in poor neighborhoods, and various pro-life activities.
The Brother's pro-life commitment was put to the test in 1991, when Brother Michael Gaworski contracted a bacterial pneumonia that caused him to go into cardiac arrest. Paramedics revived him, but he had suffered brain damage that left him unable to communicate or move.
Brother Michael spent two weeks in intensive care and months in the hospital. The period was an education in the difficulty of being pro-life, Brother Anthony Sweere recalls. “We had nurses, doctors, a social worker, and even a hospital chaplain urging us to pull the plug on him.”
In one discussion, a physician unwittingly warned the Brothers not to let themselves be pressured by “right-wing religious zealots from Pro-Life Action Ministries” — the organization Brother Michael had co-founded. At a Catholic hospital, a doctor reprimanded the men for “playing God” and “imposing” their morals on Michael rather than “letting him go.”
“We were hardly pressing for extraordinary measures,” says Brother Anthony. “Beyond food and hydration, all Michael needed at the time was antibiotics and pain management.”
Once Brother Michael's condition stabilized, the Brothers brought him back to the friary. “It was the natural thing to do,” says Brother Paul. “Michael is a brother of this community, a founder. Caring for him is a natural part of our vocation, not a ministry.” The Brothers educated themselves about medications and feeding tubes and began caring for him around the clock, with help from medical professionals and others, including Michael's blood brother, Gary.
At first, Michael's parents wondered whether the group was really up to it. “They were so young, and it was such a huge commitment,” Wynona Gaworski explains. Seeing them rise to the challenge, she and her husband, Dick, declare themselves “more grateful than we could ever express.”
She says they have seen God use the joint witness of her son and his Franciscan brothers “in powerful ways.” One day Archbishop Harry Flynn stopped in and prayed over Brother Michael, as Gaworski looked on. “He told him what a wonderful gift he was to the archdiocese and the Church, how precious his life is. That touched me very deeply.”
She has also been impressed at the number of people who stop by her son's bedside in search of strength for their personal struggles — “people with health problems, mental problems, addictions. Michael can't say a word, but their faith in God is strengthened just by being with him.”
Teaching Through Love
The Brothers' obvious love for Michael has an evangelizing quality that touches everyone who encounters it, his mother observes.
Medical personnel sometimes express astonishment at how superbly Brother Michael is cared for. A reporter for a local newspaper dropped in at the friary one day to get information, was intrigued by the Brothers' pro-life witness, and returned to volunteer for a day. The reporter, who is a Buddhist, later said that the encounter helped her when she was suddenly called to care for her mother, who developed bone cancer. “I truly drew strength from that memory during my moth-er's ordeal,” she wrote.
Jamo, a torture survivor from Ethiopia (he asked to be identified only by his nickname), reports that living with the Brothers for more than four years brought him a “healing of the spirit.” A medical doctor, Jamo helped with Brother Michael's care, which led him to reflect on his own experiences. “I have survived a lot. When I think about why these things happened, even though I don't understand, I now see that God has a reason why this has been allowed.”
The Brothers' example of dedicated love played a part in the healing, says Jamo. “They could do anything they want in this land of opportunity!
But here they are, giving up these privileges to serve other people, to live with the immigrants, to care for their brother.”
“In a way, all of us have been wounded with Michael,” Brother Paul reflects. “But with the loss and grief comes a different way to relate to others' hardships, an awareness of the spiritual fruits of suffering and of a hidden realm that is far beyond our