Leadership essential to building culture of life

Father Stephen Imbarrato, founder of Project Defending Life in Albuquerque, N.M., believes in a hands-on, well-rounded approach when it comes to parish involvement in pro-life activities.

“There are so many things that people can do to save lives,” he said. “Hold fundraisers or have a confirmation class or youth ministry raise funds. Participate in 40 Days For Life. Get the kids to go with you to pray at abortion mills. Help moms in crisis pregnancies. Help the men and women who have been wounded by abortion. And educate people so that they can be aware of what abortion is.”

Father Imbarrato’s project — which is independent of the Archdiocese of Sante Fe, but has its full support — is a ministry that he calls “a pro-life concept” center, which includes many facets under one umbrella. For instance: a chapel with frequent Masses, Eucharistic adoration, processions to the abortion mill across the street and a multitude of pro-life resources.

“The idea is to get parishes involved and to provide them with opportunities because sometimes they start these ministries and just don’t know what to do,” Father Imbarrato said.

The project is Catholic, but ecumenical. In fact, Bud and Tara Shaver who head the outreach are evangelical Christians.

“It’s important for a pro-life group to be multi-denominational, and that we reach out to our Christian brothers and sisters who are not Catholic,” Father Imbarrato said.

Witnesses needed

One of his mentors was Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life in Staten Island, N.Y. Father Pavone attended his first March For Life as a teenager in 1976 and has been fighting abortion full-time since 1993.

He credits adults in the movement for inspiring young people to be leaders today and in the future.

“They need not only teachers, but witnesses,” Father Pavone told Our Sunday Visitor. “They have to see us giving our time and indeed our lives for the unborn, and they will want to give theirs. We need to bring them alongside us as we counsel the women tempted to abort, or the one who has had an abortion, and as we pray at the abortion mill, hand out fliers to elect pro-life candidates and work to lobby legislators to pass pro-life laws. They need to be with us to see firsthand both the vehemence of the enemies of life and the joy of defending life.”

Some believe that young people will listen only to the young, he added, but by their responses to the popes or Mother Teresa, it’s clear that they aren’t necessarily looking for someone their own age.

“They are looking for people of integrity who know what they believe in and are consistent with living those beliefs,” Father Pavone said.

Encouraged by leadership

After the homily at every Mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Brentwood, Calif., parishioners kneel and pray one Hail Mary for the end of abortion and the protection of life.

“It has become an interesting fixture in our liturgy,” Father Jerry Brown said. “So many young women have come to me later and said that they had an abortion and didn’t know it was wrong. All because of that prayer.”

That devotion, suggested by a parishioner who worked for years in the trenches, boosted the church’s pro-life commitment. There are now about 10 groups with different focuses, including a Filipino youth group and an outreach to other denominations.

A group called the Pro-Lifers of the Mystical Rose for young people originated in the parish, and founder Maria Lewis has expanded it to other areas of the country. In Arkansas, though Catholics are the minority, they were for years leading the pro-life movement in the Bible Belt state.

“We carried the torch for life, and the Protestant community is coming aboard,” said Rose Mimms, executive director of Arkansas Right to Life, a non-denominational organization involved in many aspects of the movement, including lobbying for legislation. “We work closely with all churches and provide materials free of charge. We do whatever is needed to help educate about the right to life, and provide as many resources as we can to everybody. Church outreach is a huge part of our program.”

Sometimes, she added, it’s a struggle for individuals or parish groups to pray in front of an abortion clinic. So there’s strength in numbers when parishes link and support each other, and when they are encouraged by their leadership.

“I know in my own parish that it wasn’t until priests preached it from the pulpit and encouraged it that we got a few more people,” Mimms said. “It’s still a struggle, but you are seeing more people out there.”

The Diocese of Little Rock includes the entire state, and Marianne Linane, diocesan Respect Life director, has seen growing numbers of youth take up the cause at rates outpacing older Catholics.

“The youth are extremely open to pro-life issues in spite of the messages they are getting that aren’t good,” she said. “If we can get to them before Planned Parenthood and their minions get to them, we really stand a chance of setting them straight.”

Continued improvement

At St. Mary, Mother of God Parish in Middletown, N.J., the pro-life movement is vibrant. A “Spiritual Adoption” program — in which participants pray in a special way for an unborn child for nine months — took off. Posters showed a baby’s development, knitters made baby items, and a baby shower was held at the end. Add to that participation in the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., pro-life youth groups, a table set up at a church fundraising fair, and a Christmas card sale to raise money for the cause.

Adults are setting good examples. “Parents bring their youngsters along and that’s a good way to get them excited about this,” said John Lovasz, a respect life representative. “We are trying to get more and more young people involved, and parents, good teachers and role models are preparing the way.”

In the Diocese of Dallas, Jacquelyn Smith, director of Youth For Life — one of nine diocesan pro-life ministries — commends youth ministers who are promoting the pro-life message in their parishes.

“They are more versed on the topic now,” she said. “They grew up in the (pro-life) culture, so they feel more comfortable and their resources are better.”

As a result, dynamic youth ministers promote confidence that enables young people to stand up for their convictions, even overcoming obstacles to start pro-life clubs in public high schools. Their commitments often continue.

“They are bold, and they are not just the hope of the future, they are the leaders of today,” Smith said. “Babies can’t wait. Every day, 500 babies die waiting for tomorrow.”

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.