One might safely assume that all priests are pro-life. So why would it be necessary to form a pro-life organization for priests such as Priests for Life Canada?
“While it’s safe to assume that all priests are pro-life,” says Father Joseph Hattie, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, “not all priests have at their disposal the materials they need to get the word out at any point in time.”
Father Hattie is a member of the board of directors of Priests for Life Canada and has been with the organization from its inception in 1996. “I’ve celebrated 43 years of the priesthood, and that makes me somewhat of the grandfather of the board,” he says.
The priest says that, even though priests hold pro-life convictions, they might not have pro-life answers readily available for those who ask tough questions about issues such as abortion, euthanasia, artificial contraception and stem-cell research. Priests for Life Canada provides a service to priests by offering education, support and networking.
The organization’s website lists six objectives that structure its mission. The aims include linking priests to one another and pro-life groups to priests, distributing a quarterly newsletter for priests, providing priests with myriad resources and ministry aids and, in some areas, setting up gatherings at which priests can share prayer and ideas in small groups.
Priests for Life Canada (priestsforlifecanada.com) has roughly 1,500 clergy members, including a number of bishops, and more than 2,000 lay members. In order to better serve the lay membership, the organization publishes a bi-annual newsletter for laity, Catholic Life and Family, and a bi-annual newsletter for high school students, Facts for Life. It also conducts an annual pro-life essay contest for high-school students.
According to Father Jim Whalen, the organization’s national director, Priests for Life Canada is a spiritual organization, not primarily a political-activism one. Its emphases are on forming, educating and inspiring.
“We promote the apologetics of life,” says Father Whalen. “We use the Scriptures and papal encyclicals, and rely heavily on the teachings of the magisterium to make people warriors for life. We show them that Christ is the Lord of Life.”
Reining in Relativism
In line with the spiritual dimension of the organization’s mission, Priests for Life Canada has arranged an international Rosary for Life, a perpetual, worldwide endeavor to assure that the Rosary is being said around the clock for the defense of life. Individuals are asked to pledge 15 minutes daily or weekly in a consistent time period and to notify the organization of their commitment via e-mail.
Father Whelan explains that the greatest enemy of the pro-life movement is relativism.
“People prefer to interpret the truth for themselves,” he says. “They choose to accept as truth only what they think is the truth.”
One difference between Priests for Life Canada and other pro-life organizations is that they expand their scope of operation to include artificial contraception and family issues. According to Father Whelan, 80% of all Catholics practice artificial contraception and he sees this as the root of all pro-life issues. “It goes against the natural law,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense to kill our own offspring.”
Each year, Priests for Life Canada conducts a one-day pro-life/pro-family symposium and luncheon banquet for clergy and laity. Usually held in Ottawa, it’s open to members and non-members alike and generally has a family-centered theme. The day includes Mass, talks by professionals in the field of family and life, and a luncheon banquet. The eighth annual Priests for Life Canada Symposium will be held on Prince Edward Island in October. The keynote speaker will be Cardinal Marc Oulette, archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada. This year’s theme is Life and Family.
Priests for Life Canada began 12 years ago in the Diocese of Pembroke, Ontario, with a handful of young men interested in emulating the activities of Priests for Life in the United States. Within a year, they had formed their mission and vision and gathered a 12-member board of directors. Today the board functions as both governing body and task force.
Managing Director Mike Vande Wiel has been with the organization from the start and handles the nuts-and-bolts end of things from his Ontario home.
“The main thrust behind the effort to start Priests for Life Canada,” he says, “was because we were hearing comments from the general public that priests weren’t doing enough in the pro-life arena.”
The organization has done much to regain lost ground. “Now Catholics in the pro-life movement know that their clergy is involved and organized in a way that shows their concern — and that Catholics stand united to protect life,” says Vande Wiel. “When people hear about us, they’re happy to know that the clergy is involved in this issue.”
Priests for Life Canada runs on a limited budget gleaned from private donations, a staff of two and a corps of volunteers. Darlene Dalton is the organization’s office manager and is based in Ottawa. Most of her workday is spent fielding phone calls, fulfilling literature requests and coordinating the organization’s mailings.
“I know I can always count on our volunteers,” she says. “As busy as their lifestyles are, they’re very dedicated.”
Ultimately, the goal of Priests for Life Canada is to be put out of business by having accomplished their mission of transforming Canada into a culture of life. Currently, Canada has no laws governing abortion; it’s neither legal nor illegal there. Abortions occur at the rate of between 100,000 and 110,000 a year and have been growing exponentially over the past three or four decades.
“Considering that the population of Canada is one-10th that of the United States,” Mike Vande Wiel remarks, “that’s still an alarming rate of abortions.”
(In the United States, a total of 848,163 abortions were reported to the Centers for Disease Control for 2003, the latest year for which the CDC has an exact tally. The abortion ratio was 241 per 1,000 live births.)
Marge Fenelon writes from