There was the religious profession
of the first member of a new religious community dedicated to the pro-life
cause. There were lay associates joining. And the first spades were driven into
The new religious community is the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life, founded by Father Frank Pavone, longtime director of Priests for Life. During a Mass Aug. 24 at the Cathedral of St. Laurence in this Texas panhandle city, Father Pavone professed his permanent promises as a member of the community in the presence of Bishop John Yanta of Amarillo and Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.
Doing so, Father Pavone takes on new initials: M.E.V.: Missionarii Evangelii Vitae, Latin for Missionaries of the Gospel of Life.
The priest then accepted the society’s first two seminarians, Patrick O’Donnell and Daniel Cochran, and introduced four men who have been accepted for a year of inquiry, a period of discernment possibly leading to formal studies for the priesthood. And he received the promises of the society’s first five lay associates.
O’Donnell and Cochran have completed their year of inquiry, and their first year in the seminary is a year of aspirancy. After that, they hope to take their first temporary promises as members of the society.
Former Episcopal priest-turned Catholic Jim Pinto and his wife are among the first lay associates.
“To see Father Pavone make his promises was absolutely profound,” Pinto remarked. “It’s the beginning of this great campaign on behalf of life and was like watching the birth of the Franciscans or Benedictines.”
Later, with seven bishops, the family of Terri Schindler-Schiavo, and other pro-life leaders, Father Pavone presided over the groundbreaking of the new Bishop John W. Yanta Pro-life Center. It is planned as the international headquarters for the Missionaries of the Gospel of Life and Priests for Life.
“In today’s world, the idea of a new religious community founded for the purpose of working to protect human life may seem like a sign of contradiction — but it may just be what the world of today needs,” said Cardinal Martino. “The call to protect life is not only a foundation of our faith as Catholics, but it is the very basis of our recognition of human rights and the right to life.”
Cardinal Martino said he felt “bittersweet emotions” with the groundbreaking — gratitude for the faith animating Father Pavone’s movement, tempered by sorrow over the “flagrant disregard for God’s gift of life” that prompted the formation of the movement in the first place.
“The lies that are used to justify abortion and euthanasia must be unmasked,” the cardinal said. “It is always a monstrous moral evil to take the life of an innocent human being. When the fundamental right to life is at risk, then all life is at risk and all other rights are in jeopardy.”
Interest in the society and the lay association has grown steadily since their creation last year. In December, constitutions for the society were approved and Bishop Yanta officially established it as a Society of Apostolic Life.
There are 10 priests in the
process of obtaining permission to join the society. The seminarians are in
Father Pavone feels that the time is ripe for such a society.
“Throughout the Church’s history, God has intervened in times of great moral crisis to raise up special communities with special charisms to address the problems of the day,” said Father Pavone. “People want to root their pro-life work in a somewhat more formalized way in the Catholic Church.”
Recent college graduate Andrea Staargaard heard about the lay association through her work as administrative assistant with the post-abortion outreach Rachel’s Vineyard Ministries. While she has not yet made her promises to formally become a member of the society, she is preparing for that eventuality by starting a “life cell” — a group of individuals interested in learning more about the association.
She has also created a website
(LayAssociatesPA.org) to communicate with those in
“My whole family is pro-abortion,” said Staargaard, who finds the solidarity of such a group attractive. “In an apostolic society, the group is united in prayer, thought, and actions.”
Pinto, who serves as the
coordinator for the lay association, said that the “life cells” are the key to
the lay association’s community. About 10 cells have been formed throughout the
“This is where the members gather,
study and go over the spirituality of the society,” said Pinto, who lives in
The spirituality of the association borrows heavily from both Pope John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, both of whom Father Pavone had met and spoken with. It also borrows from the Salesians. Father Pavone attended college seminary with the Salesians and was a temporarily professed Salesian brother for three years prior to becoming the first full-time director of Priests for Life.
“There is a spirituality of the pro-life effort,” said Father Pavone. “It’s something people have been living. It’s been crystallized by John Paul and Mother Teresa.”
Lay associates follow four spiritual disciplines: prayer, study, community and witness. That involves a commitment to offering a daily prayer to end abortion, learning more about the sanctity of life, gathering in “life cells” with others for mutual support and prayer, and having some pro-life witness.
“That doesn’t have to be sidewalk counseling or praying outside an abortion business,” said Pinto. “It could be as simple as witnessing to life through your marriage or family.”
The lay association aims to work in concert with the pro-life work that many people have done for years.
“Whether it’s post-abortion work, healing, activism, or the political dimension, members can continue doing the work they have always done,” said Father Pavone. “This allows them to take their pro-life living-out of the Gospel and put it under the Church’s umbrella.”
Ways to Belong
Society members profess promises of:
— commitment to the full-time defense of the right to life; and
— obedience to the society’s superiors, so as to be available for the needs of the society’s mission.
The society accepts as full
members priests, celibate permanent deacons and “lay missionaries” who
“renounce marriage for the sake of the
While members do not formally profess the evangelical counsels as religious vows, the society’s founding documents say that “the holiness we seek must manifest a life of Gospel detachment from worldly goods” as well as a life of obedience and chastity.
Affiliates of the missionaries may be clerical or lay, married or single. They do not live in the community and do not necessarily have to be involved full time in pro-life work.
Begany’s call came following the death of his father in 2004 from complications due to Parkinson’s disease. While he had been in seminary for one semester in 1998, he left to help his mother care for his ailing father. After attending a discernment retreat with Father Pavone and 35 other men in June 2005, Begany applied to the priestly association for formation.
“Both my father and Pope John Paul II were Slavic, were men of faith, and had similar neurological problems,” said Begany. “I thought the association would be a way to explore if I am called to serve the Church as a priest.”
Father Pavone said that the groundbreaking marks what will be the first in a number of buildings on the 60-acre site, donated to the association by Bishop Yanta who has been Bishop of Amarillo since 1997. Bishop Yanta himself has long been a supporter of the pro-life movement. Under his leadership, prayer and activism, the number of Planned Parenthood facilities in his diocese was reduced from 19 to three.
“We are going to go step by step and build only what we know we need,” said Father Pavone. “We obviously need a formation house.”
He explained that the house would not only be for those in formation, but for all priests who are ordained and incardinated into the society. The building will also house administrative offices for Priests for Life and for the society.
Given the presence of so many
dignitaries at the groundbreaking, it was the presence of someone lesser known
that was one of the highlights for Father Pavone — Mary O’Connor Ward, the
“The concept of this society goes back to my time as a parish priest on Staten Island (N.Y.), and my talks with Cardinal O’Connor,” said Father Pavone. Cardinal O’Connor ordained Father Pavone and gave him permission to direct Priests for Life in 1993.
Said Father Pavone: “I was so happy that his sister could be there.”
(Catholic News Service contributed to this report.)
Tim Drake is based