The Catholic Church in the United States observes every Jan. 22 — the anniversary of the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion — as a Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. Indeed, almost since the original court decision, Catholics have joined other pro-life activists to mark each anniversary with public demonstrations and prayer. Most notably, several hundred thousand demonstrators descend annually on Washington, D.C., for the Jan. 22 March for Life.
But the United States is, geographically, a big nation, and not everyone can get to Washington. Parishes, dioceses and grassroots organizations throughout the country annually offer up alternatives to a trip that for many would be expensive, exhausting or simply impossible. Many such events are modeled on the national March for Life.
But one Catholic parish in western Pennsylvania has invented its own way of observing the day. What they came up with is an impressive combination of prayer, education, advocacy and fun that parishioners love and that the pastor is certain has helped his people grasp more fully the Church’s teaching on the dignity of all human life.
Note to pastors and other parish leaders: This idea is well worth a look.
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish is a community of about 4,000 souls located in Carnegie, Pennsylvania, just outside of Pittsburgh. The parish was in the habit of sending a busload of parishioners to the March for Life each January. But increasing pressures on staff and programming pushed the pastor, Father David Poecking, and his staff to cancel the 2015 trip and consider alternatives. That set religious education coordinator Mary Kay Smith looking for some other way to mark the occasion.
“There was a big hole in my heart about not going to the March. I really felt like we needed to do something special,” Smith told The Priest.
She wanted a parish event that included prayer and that would appeal to children as well as adults. She thought through the resources the parish had available — like popcorn and snow-cone machines that sat in storage all but three days of every year, when they were pulled out for the annual festival. As she talked through the possibilities with other folks at the parish, she began getting offers of help, including from the local Knights of Columbus chapter.
What emerged was the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish Family Pro-Life Celebration. The event was such a hit that the community did it again in January 2016 and will repeat it again in January 2017. Here’s how it played out.
On the evening of the weeknight typically set aside for the parish religious education program, all the students gathered with their teachers in the parish church. In response to invitations offered through announcements at Mass and in the bulletin, many parents and other parishioners joined them. In all, around 300 participated.
The evening began with the communal praying of the Rosary, led by members of the Knights of Columbus. But this was no standard Rosary. Between each decade (or set of 10 Hail Marys), a special segment — featuring a skit, story, video, song or reflection — was inserted.
“Each of these activities between the decades illustrated in a creative way a particular theme related to the precious gift of life from womb to tomb. One of the catechists led each one,” Smith said.
For example, one segment was a short puppet show on the theme of respecting people’s differences. It depicted a scene in which several of the puppets were forming a club but wouldn’t let one puppet in because he looked different than the others. It concluded with the message that all people are made in God’s image and that every life is a gift.
Another segment featured a video of a soft drink commercial that depicts a frazzled young couple, in the thick of the typical frustrations of parenting, who respond with joy at the news of a new pregnancy. In still another, Smith offered a reflection in which she recalled being moved by viewing a famous painting by Claude Monet on display at a nearby Pittsburgh museum.
“But if a human hand could make that masterpiece, how much more beautiful are the things God creates? We are all God’s masterpieces,” she told those gathered.
Strengthening Each Other in Faith
After the Rosary, the youngest kids were dismissed to the cafeteria, where the carnival began. Meanwhile, the middle-school kids stayed behind for some additional age-appropriate catechesis on abortion.
“Mary Kay and Steve [Geitgey, the parish’s pastoral associate] hit just the right balance with regard to making our young adolescents aware of the issues while being sensitive to the emotional delicacy of the issue. I was so pleased with their approach,” Father Poecking said.
Following this, the older kids and adults joined the fun, too. In the cafeteria, a pro-life carnival was in full swing. It featured a wide assortment of games, contests and prizes, complimented by snacks, including snow cones, funnel cakes and cotton candy for all. Eighth-grade students led the games for their younger peers. A sign, strung from the ceiling, offered an acrostic with the letters of the word “pro-life”:
Open your eyes
Life begins at conception
It is not a “choice”
Forget what others may say…
Everyone deserves a chance to live!
And there was something to occupy parents, too: A table provided free educational material, pro-life bumper stickers and form letters and petitions that could be adopted for use in communicating with elected officials.
All in all, it turned out to be what Father Poecking proudly points to as “a great example of the laity supporting and strengthening each other in faith.”
“Folks reacted very positively to this event. Very enthusiastically,” Father Poecking said. “So many people said to me how inspiring they found this. And they said we needed to do it again.”
Smith also heard the positive comments.
“Before the night was over, one of the seventh-graders told me she couldn’t wait until next year, when she’d be among the eighth-graders leading the games for the younger kids. I thought, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to do it again!’” she said.
And it’s clear that there was more to the evening’s success than the chance for some fun. Given the demands of a round-trip bus ride to Washington — 250 miles from Carnegie — Father Poecking is pleased to be able to offer a worthwhile alternative to parishioners for whom such a trip is unrealistic.
“The Stations of the Cross were developed in the Middle Ages in order to provide a spiritual experience for people who could not get to the Holy Land. We’re doing this for a similar reason,” he said.
And it seems clear it worked out that way.
“I had a strong sense from all the positive comments that part of what our parishioners were communicating was a new appreciation of the Church’s teaching and its insistence on putting it into practice,” Father Poecking said.
Smith, too, has seen lasting spiritual benefits.
“One parent, who I was aware did not go to Mass much, said to me before that night, ‘We’re not going to go to the event, because we’re pro-choice.’ So I gently responded to that, and that led to a significant discussion right there on the phone. Her eyes were opened to what abortion is really about. And I noticed that she’s been coming to church more. She has definitely become more active in various parish activities,” Smith said.
Because of the positive response, what was supposed to be a one-time event has become an annual one. In January 2017, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton parish will hold its third Family Pro-Life Celebration. And you can bet this year’s event won’t be the last.
Barry Hudock is the author of several books, including “Faith Meets World: The Gift and Challenge of Catholic Social Teaching” ($16.99, Liguori Publications).
Editor’s note: Because Jan. 22, 2017, falls on a Sunday, the Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children will be observed in the United States on Monday, Jan. 23. And due to the presidential inauguration, the 2017 March for Life will take place in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 27.)