Keeping the Faith on Capitol Hill

A leader in pro-life legislation, he and his wife, Karen Garver Santorum, have five children. A small gold cross stands on his desk in the U.S. Senate, where he represents Pennsylvania. Next to it is a carved wooden sign that says, simply, “PRAY.” A book about St. Vincent, patron saint of the Benedictines, sits on a table by his desk. On the mantel, porcelain angels. He spoke recently with Eleanor Kennelly and Victor Gaetan.

Kennelly and Gaetan: We see many symbols of faith here in your office. It's not common to see a cross so prominently displayed on an elected official's desk.

Santorum: I say I came to the U.S. Senate and found the Lord. My spiritual direction was incredibly altered and accelerated in the last five or six years through the loss of our son, Gabriel, in 1996, and through some of the things I have gotten involved in here, like the partial-birth abortion fight. Our spiritual life has really gotten more meat on the bones. Our personal relationship with God and our Catholic faith have blossomed.

How did you lose your son?

I don't show many people this, but here is a picture of him [picking up a framed photo of an infant]. He was just a little baby, two hours old. We knew there were complications in utero. God prepared us for this. We didn't know it at the time but we believe God grounded us before it happened. He is a great blessing. Gabriel has had a profound impact.

In what way?

When you love a child, and he dies, the first thing you ask is, “Why is God doing this to me?” But, not immediately, eventually, you see some purpose.

Gabriel has had a profound impact on our family and on my work in the Senate. My wife Karen wrote a book titled Letters To Gabriel (CCC of America, 1998). Karen always writes letters to our children. In this case, she wrote the majority of them after he died, directing all of that grief into prayer and the letters.

Reading the book has been a wonderful healing tool, especially for people who lost children but never went through the grieving process. The book is also an instrument of faith. Each chapter begins with a Bible quote, and the foreword was written by Mother Teresa. There isn't a week that goes by when someone doesn't mention the book to me. And Gabriel has been a great inspiration in the fight against partial-birth abortion.

Through my work, and through Karen's book, I can think of at least seven or eight children who are alive today. The mothers decided not to have abortions. So, we know we have our little son in heaven and he has been used in a very powerful way.

Were you brought up as a Catholic?

I've been a Catholic all my life. I was an altar boy. I went to Catholic grade school from first through eighth grade. I have the scars from rulers slapped on the backs of my hands! While growing up, I was involved in our church, for a child, in a profound way. My faith was important to me.

Going to college in the 1970s, well, it had its impact. It was not the place to find faith and I didn't. I stopped going to church regularly and really fell away, never completely, but faith was not central to my life. It wasn't driving me. I was as mixed up and restless as any time in my life. I had no direction. I thank God some guardian angel was looking after me — had to be — because I wasn't looking after me.

I survived that time. I got out of college in 1981 and said, “Now it's time to grow up! Now I'm beginning my life.” I began to figure out that I needed to do what God wanted me to do not what I wanted to do. My parents planted a seed and I slowly began to nurture that and feel a hunger for that.

When did you meet your wife Karen?

I met my wife in 1988. That was a time … it's interesting, how these things happen.

I was beginning to go to church again and growing closer to my faith. She was going through the same thing and we helped each other. We made sure we went to church, followed the holy days, became more prayerful and more faith-centered. The pre-Cana program also served to bring these things into focus.

How did your election to Congress in 1990 affect your spiritual life?

I had been making progress. I felt that I was getting grounded again. But during my four years in Congress, I wasn't exactly “in a rut,” that's not fair, but I wasn't experiencing much spiritual growth. I was always running for office. I was always between two places [Washington and Pennsylvania]. I was doing so many things. I just carved out the time for faith, and it wasn't much.

Did this change when you got to the Senate?

When I came to the Senate, I sort of stepped back and asked, “Where am I with God these days?” I committed myself to seeking him out.

And you've been successful …

I don't know how successful I've been, but God is much more central to my everyday life than he has ever been and it's something I'm conscious of. That's why I try to go to Mass daily. That's why I have my little sign here: “PRAY.”

Through your church here in Washington, and in Pennsylvania, do you sense a rededication to God among many Catholics, a new vibrancy? Do you feel a growth in evangelization?

Absolutely. I feel it in a broader context beyond my parishes. As a national senator, because of the issues I'm involved with, I meet many Catholic leaders and I feel an amazing energy among Catholics across the country.

The Clinton administration keeps trying to increase the budget for international contraception and abortion programs. In a country such as Romania today, where these “family planning” programs have grown exponentially, there are now some 1.4 million abortions a year.

There seems to be a strong relationship between the so-called family planning programs and increased abortions, even when U.S. funding supposedly does not advocate abortion. What can we do about this?

We have tried to veto that. It's genocide. It's an issue we're aware of, we fight, and with this president, it will always be a fight.

Promoting personal responsibility has been a theme in many of the issues you champion, such as welfare reform. You first came to national prominence around the House banking scandal, when you discovered that members of Congress were abusing the U.S. House bank, overdrawing their accounts with no penalty. Several members lost their seats as a result. Do you think they were acting unethically or were they just careless?

In so many ways, people fool themselves into thinking that something they are doing which is not right, is not that bad, until right and wrong are clearly drawn. In the case of the House banking scandal, a group of us were coming in new, from outside, so we could see right and wrong.

There is a seduction here in Congress. You get treated differently. You have to be constantly mindful of who you work for — the people. Among the members overdrawing money, for most it was a self-indulgence. A few were actively ripping off the system, but for most it was an indulgence.

What message do you have for those Catholics who feel the way you did in the early ‘80s, weak in faith and without strong spiritual direction?

I would rather offer a message to those Catholics who have re-established a strong religious practice — may God give you the gift of the Holy Spirit to reach out to others who have not experienced a return, who are not watering the seed of faith. A major reason my faith was strengthened was the fact that someone reached out to me.

Whom are you thinking of?

First, obviously, my wife. Also, Senator Don Nichols [of Oklahoma]. He encouraged me to go to a Bible study group when I got into the Senate. He pestered me until I did. And what I got out of it was so important, because I recognized I had to focus my life around the word. So you need to go out and reach out to your friends, and we all know them, we all have friends who need to work on it, but we don't reach out.

My message is this: Ask for the Holy Spirit. I pray, “Give me the gift of prophecy. Give me the words, to touch this person's heart, to get them to talk to God.”

----- EXCERPT: A leading pro-lifer found his way back to God