Bishops’ Pro-Life Helmsman

Tom Grenchik, new executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, is a former architect. Now he’s designing a plan to win the battle for life.

Tom Grenchik is an architect, but he isn’t building houses.

Rather Grenchik, who studied architecture at the University of Maryland, is designing a national blueprint to fight assaults on the sanctity of life. Since January, he has served as the executive director of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Prior to his role with the bishops’ conference, Grenchik served as the founding director of the Pro-Life Office for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.

He spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake from his office in Washington.

How did you get involved in the pro-life movement?

I was born in Chicago, but grew up in Maryland. My family moved there when I was five and we still live in Maryland. I was the oldest of three children, with one brother and one sister. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. My dad was an electrical engineer.

We grew up in a loving Catholic home. Everyone is still Catholic. The faith has always been an important part of our lives. It’s been a continual memory. My parents were great examples to us. My dad always sang in the choir. My mom was always involved in pro-life work, so they got us involved in those kinds of things.

I was 13 at the time of Roe v. Wade in 1973. I remember that my mother was very upset about it and started volunteering at a pregnancy center. That’s all we would hear about from Mom. We all agreed, but rolled our eyes and said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Needless to say, Mom was a big influence. But, it wasn’t until getting married that my wife and I got involved in volunteering work.

What happened then?

My wife and I met in high school, fell in love at 17, and married in 1982 at the age of 22. We both moved to a parish that was between our parishes growing up. There was a newly ordained priest there who was very involved in pro-life work. He had the idea of inviting people to go do sidewalk counseling and pray outside abortion businesses. We felt we should get more involved, so we went down to pray the Rosary and offer help to men and women.

I absolutely hated it. I found it to be such a seemingly hopeless situation outside the abortion clinic. It was a difficult place to be, yet it bothered me if I didn’t go when the group went. Once a week I went, which I still do today. It’s been 25 years of doing that.

What has it been like?

What I began to see was the great needs of people. No one wants an abortion. They feel there’s no other choice. There’s often fear or anxiety driving this. I was surprised by the miracles we saw. When you could engage them in a conversation, I was surprised by how many people would turn to help if it’s offered in a loving way.

That led to developing resources for women. We organized Rosary novenas where we would invite people and priests out for nine weeks in a row. That would generate crowds of people praying. There were many blessings that came from these efforts.

My entrance into pro-life work didn’t come from a philosophy or theology, but from my background as a street activist and seeing where we could help.

How did you end up working for the Archdiocese of Washington?

My background was in architecture and as a builder. In 1990, the archdiocese started talking about launching a pro-life office. I enjoyed the volunteer work, so I applied, and was hired.

Cardinal James Hickey was the one who launched the office. There was tremendous support from the cardinal.

What were the challenges you faced?

One key issue was that Cardinal Hickey wanted to say publicly that no woman should have to turn to abortion because of the high cost of health care. We developed the Birthing and Care program that allowed the use of diocesan funds for the initial screening, referring women to one of the diocesan hospitals for care, and reimbursement of costs not covered through medical programs such as Medicaid.

The other key effort was launching Project Rachel for those who had already been impacted by abortion in their past. The cardinal was very dedicated to those two programs.

Under your leadership, your office launched the Annual Rally for Life and Youth Mass. Tell me about that.

The year before I came there, there was a rally on the morning of the March for Life, and about 1,000 people showed up. It didn’t really take off until World Youth Day in Denver. We realized that we needed to add a youth Mass in the style of the Masses with the Pope. That’s when it really took off and people started coming in big numbers. It grew from probably about 3,000 to what it has been for the past couple of years with 20,000 at the Verizon Center, 4,000 in Constitution Hall, and overflow in local churches. More and more people keep coming from around the country. Not having enough space for all these other Masses has been a challenge, but it’s a nice problem to have.

To what do you attribute the growth?

The old accusations that the pro-life movement is an old white male movement are not true. It’s the young people from all different cultures and backgrounds. The dynamic of youth is that they don’t have all the baggage that we adults carry. They understand this as a black-and-white issue, and that abortion is not a good thing. It’s young people’s nature to rebel against something. When the culture is so messed up, if they are rebelling against the culture — the culture of death — they are challenging their peers and parents to embrace a culture of life. They don’t go for all the nuancing. They get it in their hearts and are motivated to do something.

There’s also the survivor thing — that one-third of their generation has been wiped out. So, they connect with that too. We can’t claim any local credit for the increase. We just gave the youth a local place to gather and put their energy to work.

There are so many different pro-life groups out there, and yet Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. What do you see as the key to success?

Prayer has to be the basis to everything we’re doing. The young people see this as a deeply spiritual effort.

The fact that there are so many different pro-life groups out there … there’s good and bad with that. There’s no one way to tackle a huge issue like this. You have many different armies trained to attack this from so many different approaches.

The challenge is trying to get everyone to appreciate one another. The devil knows how to cause difficulty. That’s often through the in-fighting. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies. One thing that could be improved is how we all work together.

What are the biggest challenges facing the pro-life movement?

I do believe we’re winning on the abortion issue. Every step along the way is progress.

The culture is changing, our public opinion is changing. Unfortunately, our politicians aren’t keeping up with the polling.

The biggest challenge is going to be threats at the end of life and the cultural fascination with science such as [embryonic] stem-cell research and cloning. Abortion has wiped out a huge percentage of the working population that would have been able to support the elderly population. There will be huge economic pressure to speed up people’s deaths. We need to teach and challenge people to give good example by embracing people at the end of life and not falling into the culture of death.

What gives you hope for the future?

The battle has been won. We’re going to win; we’re just in the process of this playing out.

As Catholics, we have to raise the best possible families we can. That will generate this love for life, a love for the elderly and for those who are sick, vocations to religious life and the priesthood.

All of us doing the best we can to live out our vocations will take care of these crises of not understanding the meaning of marriage or sexuality.

When kids realize that they were raised in a marriage open to life, it’s not hard for them to appreciate and understand why the Church teaches what it teaches. That generosity will spill over into these other things. That is happening. Pro-lifers are reproducing.

Those opposed to life are not. By sheer numbers, we’re gaining. I see more and more young Catholic families realizing the power and privilege of being a Catholic family.

I do feel we are winning, but we’re in that process of a long battle. Especially on the end of life issues, that battle will go on longer than the abortion battle.

Praise God, this growing new army of young troops has joined the effort with their enthusiasm, their energy and their prayers.

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.