Preaching to the Choir
Father Frank Pavone’s reflections help priests discuss life issues.
AMARILLO, Texas — Father Frank Pavone concedes that preaching to Catholics about abortion might be preaching to the choir.
But the choir needs practice, he says — and so do the preachers.
“If you have a choir, what do they do?” asks Father Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. “They practice so they can sing to the world.”
To help fellow priests take up the baton of pro-life preaching, Father Pavone announced last month the completion of a three-year project: homily helpers for each Sunday’s assigned readings. The homily cues — more than 150 of them — cover the Church’s entire three-year cycle of Sunday readings.
The homily suggestions are starting points only.
“[There are] thematic connections between the readings and the theme of abortion and the theme of the culture of life,” said Father Pavone, who has preached on abortion every day since 1993, and in every state. “Every single reading has such connections. A lot of priests find that hard to believe at first … but you can.
“Scripture itself says it is the word of life, so life is really on every page in every verse of Scripture. There are so many entry points that one can come at this from, from the many different angles at which abortion impacts our life and at which the different feasts and seasons of the year inform our pro-life conversation. The message can always be connected, and these notes help the priest do that.”
Father Pavone had been writing the aids since 2005, sending them to priests, deacons and others via weekly e-mails to 20,000 subscribers. Now they’re available at the organization’s website (PriestsForLife.org/liturgy/archive). He also provides general intercessions and bulletin copy with pro-life themes.
“We get a lot of great feedback,” he said. “It’s the most satisfying thing to our work when we hear a priest or deacon say, ‘You’ve given me the tools I needed to preach about this.’”
Siobhan DeFeo heard Father Pavone speak in 2007 at a National Right to Life convention in Kansas City, Mo. A mother of eight (a ninth is on the way), she was chosen by her parish’s pro-life group to transport Father Pavone from his hotel to a speaking engagement at her parish.
“He amazed me with his preaching,” DeFeo said. “I remember that he spoke from the heart, with no notes, yet very concisely. He brought the congregation easily to his topic from point zero. I wish everyone could hear him.
“I think many priests believe that we parish members don’t want to be preached to. I think they don’t realize the impact their mere presence, their few words at the pulpit, their support can make.”
‘A Lot of Thirst’
“There is a lot of thirst out there” for pro-life homilies, said Father Pavone, but they aren’t delivered very often. Why not? Some priests are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with the pro-life movement, he noted, and others think that to preach on abortion is to judge or alienate parishioners who had an abortion in the past. Yet, pro-life preaching is about reconciliation, he said. “If they had abortions, they’re hurting already. Our silence is not going to help their hurt.”
Some priests have told Father Pavone that their congregations are too old to have children, and thus, the point is moot. Still others “are just not ready to open themselves up to the fact that this is a cultural battle they have to engage,” said Father Pavone. “For some, it will end up changing their whole perception of what it means to be a priest, and it’s very hard for someone to get to that point.”
Approach does matter, he conceded. Based on feedback he’s received during his 15 years of experience and the pastoral plan of the U.S. bishops, Father Pavone has framed his pro-life preaching around three elements:
• Making it clear that there are alternatives to abortion.
• Emphasize that forgiveness and healing are possible after abortion.
• Expose why abortion is wrong and why pro-abortion arguments are lies.
“That framework shapes the development of the thoughts and points of the message” in all of the homily hints, he said.
Though abortion is the primary focus, other pro-life topics are covered, too.
“You will see, because of the way that the themes are developed on certain weekends, a very clear tie-in with contraception, with euthanasia, with a broader, consistent ethic of life,” he said. “When we expose what the Church and what the pro-life movement actually states in simple and basic terms, the people really see it as a beautiful and inspiring message. They want to be challenged so that their living out the faith will really make a difference in something big, in something important. People want to be called to greatness, and that’s what I’m sensing.”
Father Damian Zurlein, pastor of St. Columbkille in Papillion, Neb., said the homily hints he reviewed were of good quality “and provide some helpful ideas and insights to bring the issue of life into the Sunday homily. The prayers of the faithful and bulletin announcements will be quite useful, as well.”
A priest for 27 years, Father Zurlein says the parishioners do not ask him to preach on abortion. In fact, he says, he rarely gets requests for specific topics. He prefers to approach his homilies as conversations — and to consider what God wants to say to his congregation with each week’s readings.
“I have not found it useful to focus a Sunday homily on a particular sin, but [I like] to focus on the nature of sin or the relationship with God and to use examples of sins to help the congregation understand the concept I am preaching about,” he said.
Yet, even the best preachers tend to focus on their favorite themes throughout the year.
“You can ask the parishioners,” said Father Zurlein. “They can easily tell you what their pastor’s themes are. As clergy, we may think we are giving a different homily every weekend, but we have themes which underlay all of our homilies, and they appear on a regular basis.”
That said, Father Zurlein finds homily services like Father Pavone’s “help us to look at the readings from a different perspective and maybe preach on a topic we would not have normally used.”
Father Pavone thinks more priests — especially those who have grown up with the pro-life movement — are taking up the baton and leading their congregations in the pro-life battle.
He said, “I’m convinced we have enough who are ready to be inspired so that we can end this tragedy of abortion.”
Anthony Flott is based
in Papillion, Nebraska.
- October 5-11, 2008