‘Champion For Life’ Waged An Endless Campaign
Published: January 13, 2005
ATLANTA—Confronting Catholic politicians who support abortion. Helping to rescue a crisis pregnancy center near financial rock bottom. Promoting a biology lesson from God on stem cells. Building stronger marriages through Natural Family Planning. Asking others to lobby for a life not ready to end. Celebrating Mass for the imprisoned.
Archbishop John F. Donoghue walks up the state Capitol steps where he addressed some 2,000 pro-life rally participants in 1995. (Photo by Linda Schaefer)
“Lukewarm” is not a word that one would use to describe Archbishop John F. Donoghue’s support and defense of life. Consistently, and in a variety of arenas, the archbishop’s message has remained strong and clear: life—from the moment of conception to natural death—is a sacred and precious gift from God that must be protected.
And while the archbishop has stood up publicly to promote life and has spoken boldly at events, such as at the rally before the annual pro-life march through the streets of downtown Atlanta, in more private settings and in everyday life he has taken it upon himself, not for show, to live what he preaches for the sake of others.
“You could not ask for a better champion of life,” said Mary Boyert, director of the pro-life office for the Atlanta Archdiocese. “He has done above and beyond what would be expected of an archbishop. Anything I’ve wanted to do he has always been very supportive of.”
When Georgia Right to Life began a media campaign of pro-life commercials to educate the general public, the archbishop initiated Jeremiah’s Call, an appeal to raise funds for the media campaign orchestrated through the archdiocesan pro-life office. In the first year Jeremiah’s Call brought in $180,000. GRTL credits the commercials with a softening in attitudes of those identifying themselves as pro-choice and reported that the ads made those in the target audience more comfortable advising a friend to have a child rather than an abortion.
The archbishop has mirrored Jeremiah the prophet “who was called to speak out,” Boyert explained.
Going Out On A Limb To Address Catholic Politicians
The archbishop has not been afraid to challenge the public and Catholics who support abortion. “He does not just say the expected thing,” Boyert said.
Evidence of such is the letter he signed in 2004 with Bishop Robert J. Baker of Charleston, S.C., and Bishop Peter J. Jugis of Charlotte, N.C., in which all three declared that Catholics serving in public life who support pro-abortion legislation commit a grave sin and therefore may not receive the Eucharist until reconciling with the church.
“He’s just saying what the church teaches,” said Father Jack Durkin, pastor of Christ Our Hope Church in Lithonia. “Support of life must impact your individual life, family life, political life and parish life. The right to life—that’s a fundamental right whether you’re Catholic or not. It’s a Natural Law issue … you must back up what you say with how you vote.”
Father Durkin noted how the archbishop puts his words into action by participating in a number of local pro-life events, such as annually celebrating the Mass for the Unborn at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Atlanta as well as standing along Peachtree Street for the Life Chain in the fall.
“His message, prayer, presence and words are unambiguous, clear and vigorous … As a priest, it’s encouraging to see him work stridently in that area.”
The archbishop’s own beliefs put into action translates into support for initiatives others might propose, said Father Durkin, who alluded to efforts such as that of Father Kevin Peek, chaplain at Blessed Trinity High School, Roswell, who started Rise Up for Life, an annual pro-life lock-in for high school students held on the eve of the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
Father Durkin has also organized and supported different pro-life events, and currently parishioners at Christ Our Hope Church spend each Saturday morning in a holy hour as they pray for the end to abortion, particularly at a nearby “abortion mill.”
Peggy Sinanian served as the director of the pro-life office for 10 years before retiring in February of 1999. She experienced firsthand the archbishop’s desire to promote and develop a culture of life.
“Whatever I proposed to him, he backed me up 100 percent and made life much easier than it would have been without his loyalty to the pro-life movement. He is very dedicated and very concerned.”
With the archbishop’s support, Sinanian initiated the Mass for the Unborn in 1991, which is held each year on Jan. 22 before the annual march through downtown Atlanta to mark the anniversary of the legalization of abortion. Each year the crowd for Mass spills out into the streets around the Shrine. The first year, Sinanian recalled, the archbishop received a five-minute ovation for his “fervent dedication to pro-life” causes.
The Life Chain also began during Sinanian’s time serving the archdiocese and is held the first Sunday in October. Over 1,000 people, including the archbishop when his schedule permitted, line Peachtree Street praying for the end of abortion and holding signs that read, “Life—the first inalienable right” and “Jesus heals and forgives.”
“It’s (the archbishop’s) example and action, rather than words, and the support he gives you. You can step out knowing you have his support.”
Archbishop John F. Donoghue leads a July 1995 prayer vigil outside the Northside Women’s Clinic, Chamblee. (Photos by Michael Alexander)
Crisis Pregnancy Center Finds A Needed Friend
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory met Terry Gibbs, executive director of the Advice and Aid Pregnancy Problem Center in Hapeville, when he was on a tour of a few archdiocesan schools during his December visit to Atlanta. When Archbishop Gregory found out about Gibbs’ work with the center, he invited her to visit him. Without hesitating, Archbishop Donoghue, serving as tour guide, jokingly chimed in, “And believe me, she will.”
When faced with a consistent drop in financial contributions, Gibbs realized that she needed to approach churches to keep the center financially afloat. “I wanted to get into the churches, especially the Catholic churches,” said Gibbs, who is Catholic. “But I had a hard time getting my foot in the door.”
That is when she decided to call upon Archbishop Donoghue. “It was just a blessing to sit down with him,” she recalled. The archbishop told Gibbs, who hoped initially the center would be included on the list of ministries receiving donations from a parish’s second collection, that she could send a letter he would sign that explained the center’s mission and needs and her desire to speak to church communities to raise awareness and funds.
“That letter opened the door big time,” she said. “The archbishop was very, very supportive for doing that.”
Gibbs has attended pro-life events, including a dinner dance fund-raiser for the center that the archbishop came to, where she has witnessed Archbishop Donoghue’s commitment to pro-life causes and noted that at times he has become “teary-eyed.” “It’s so clear that his heart is there,” she said.
The nonprofit center is supported solely by dedicated individuals and donors and serves Clayton and Fulton counties and south Atlanta. Its mission is to protect the lives of unborn children and to provide a complete support system for pregnant women, birth fathers and families.
Gibbs said the center receives about 50 calls a day and helped 2,943 clients in 2003, housing 422 clients by either connecting them to appropriate agencies or helping them to pay rent for an apartment. She and volunteers distributed 14,000 diapers in 2003, gave out 206 car seats and counted 635 babies of abortion-minded mothers that were saved. “We have about 98 percent (of clients who are abortion-minded) who have a change of mind.”
She is also grateful to Archbishop Donoghue and the archdiocese for a generous grant. “We were in such a need of money … It’s just a blessing and came right at the time we were about to hit rock bottom.”
Promoting A Biology Lesson From God
Debate on the ethical source of stem cells for research continues to make headlines, but for the staff of Babies for Life and Dr. Gerry Sotomayor, a Catholic obstetrician and the organization’s founder, there is no debating the unique and beautiful role newborns can play in this issue.
Cord blood taken from the umbilical cords of newborns is “a rich and pliant source of stem cells that in no way incurs the destruction of life but celebrates life,” said Lisa Wheeler, spokesperson for Babies for Life, speaking on behalf of Dr. Sotomayor who was out of the country.
The organization has two primary functions in Atlanta, which include educating the community on this source of stem cells and also gathering cord blood from local hospitals to be reserved in an international blood bank. Nationally, those with Babies for Life focus on educating the public.
Dr. Sotomayor, who knew of the tremendous potential for stem cells derived from newborns’ umbilical cord blood, wrote a short letter to The Wall Street Journal from which he received a flurry of feedback and after much prayer with his wife, Vivian, decided to form the foundation. The organization’s motto in its Northside Hospital office space is “Trust in God + Constant Prayer + Hard Work = Results.”
Dr. Sotomayor arranged a meeting with Archbishop Donoghue to ask for approval to begin a joint venture with the archdiocese to begin educating the community. The archbishop was “very excited,” Wheeler said.
“He was excited because this is obviously a pro-life issue but definitely a new way people in the archdiocese could help promote and continue to promote the culture of life. We were told that whatever we needed to do, we would have (the archbishop’s) support. Because of that support we were able to contact pastors and begin the education process.”
Dr. Sotomayor, Father John Shramko, parochial vicar at St. Peter Chanel Church, Roswell, and others now join forces to present both the church’s teachings on stem cell research and the practical application of extracting stem cells from cord blood.
Because of his endorsement, the archbishop continues his consistent promotion of the culture of life, Wheeler said, and added that it’s visionary because it broadens the scope of pro-life in the realm of science and medicine.
“The organization is grateful for that. It wouldn’t have the support it has if we didn’t have the support of this archbishop.”
The controversy surrounding the destruction of human life to secure stem cells for research is avoidable, Wheeler said. She noted that research from stem cells extracted from cord blood has already resulted in advances in medicine while embryonic stem cells have yielded no results. “It always amazes me that the light bulb has not gone off.”
“It all goes back to God for a biology lesson,” Wheeler explained. “He’s given us the answer.”
From Defending Humane Vitae To Promoting NFP
While serving the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., during the upheaval over the encyclical Humane Vitae in the late 60s, then Father Donoghue, secretary to Cardinal Patrick A. O’Boyle, was on the front lines as priests and others protested. Humane Vitae put forth the reasoning behind the church’s opposition to abortion, sterilization and artificial contraception. It explained the church’s acceptance of what we know today to be Natural Family Planning as a way for married couples to understand and regulate their fertility. Father Donoghue remained respectful of those on both sides of the issue but always held firmly to the church’s teachings.
Lynn Crutchfield, coordinator for the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s Natural Family Planning Program under the Family Life Office, described Archbishop Donoghue’s “impressive legacy” to the field of NFP.
“When he was installed as archbishop over 11 years ago, we could brag about the excellent ministry of four certified teachers of NFP. Today they have been joined by 22 additional teachers, bringing the number of certified teachers to 26.”
Eleven years ago, Crutchfield added, the Family Life Office was not able to offer these courses in Spanish, but through the generous funding by Archbishop Donoghue, she has been able to bring Spanish trainers to Atlanta to certify archdiocesan Hispanic NFP teachers.
“Spiritually, Archbishop Donoghue believed that the essence of NFP is about respect for life at its beginning. He saw this ministry as all-encompassing because it required each couple to have respect for each other and for the magnificent gift of life. For this reason, Archbishop Donoghue insisted that each primary marriage preparation program in the archdiocese include a segment on NFP taught by trained, qualified people.”
Working under the archbishop has been “exceptional,” Crutchfield said. “He often acknowledged that it is one of the most difficult ministries placed in the hands of the laity. He also knew that it would build stronger marriages, responsible parents and cherished children. God bless him for the difference his life has made.”
Archbishop Takes Stand On End-Of-Life Case
Archbishop Donoghue has twice called publicly for prayers and consideration of a court case that involves sustaining the life of a 41-year-old woman in St. Petersburg, Fla. Terri Schiavo lost consciousness in 1990 and was deprived of oxygen for minutes before being revived. She now relies on once-a-day feedings and water from a tube, according to her brother Bob Schindler of St. Petersburg, Fla.
Schindler and his family are embroiled in litigation to keep Schiavo’s husband and legal guardian from stopping these feedings. The highly publicized court case involves many complex issues as in Florida a feeding tube is considered to be life support and any testimony that a person may have said that he or she would not want to be sustained on life support is strong enough to stop it, causing death by starvation. The Schindlers have protested the removal of the feeding tube because they believe that Schiavo is responsive to their presence and not in “a vegetative state” as her husband contends and with whom the courts have sided in the past.
The family has sent letters to all Catholic bishops, most recently in the fall of 2004, appealing for their support and prayers. A portion of the family’s letter to the bishops reads: “It is horrific for us to watch the true discrimination of Terri and accept that her life is being judged as not worth living. We would be grateful if you would consider speaking out publicly in support of her innocent and precious life and, most importantly, continue to keep Terri in your prayers.”
Archbishop Donoghue responded to this by printing a letter in The Georgia Bulletin asking for the prayers of those in the archdiocese as well as providing the contact information for Florida’s elected officials to lobby on Schiavo’s behalf.
“We can never adequately express to the archbishop our thanks for his kind words,” said Schindler, who described his family as close and still clinging to their Catholic faith even though disappointed by the inaction of many in the church.
Schindler, a high school science teacher with the diocese, acknowledged that many have stepped up to help and pray for his sister and that he and his family feel words fall short of expressing their deep gratitude for the support.
“Part of me, though, is mad. Few in the Catholic Church have spoken out. Every bishop in the country should write a letter about it, but Archbishop Donoghue is one of about three or four. It’s upsetting and disappointing.”
Still, he hopes to one day take his sister to see a movie or visit the zoo, as Schiavo is not connected to any machines and could be taken out in a wheelchair, he said. She responds to the presence of family members, particularly to her mother’s presence, as noted in a January 2005 letter written by one of Schiavo’s newly appointed attorneys.
Schindler also hopes to restart rehabilitative therapy for Schiavo and “make Terri part of our family again. Make her part of society again.”
“I have no doubt in my mind that if this were me she’d be doing the same. She’d be fighting just as hard as we are for her.”
Assisted by Deacon Tom Silvestri, right, Archbishop John F. Donoghue celebrates Mass with six inmates under death sentence at the state prison in Jackson in 1998.
Bringing Christ To Death Row
Like bishops before him, Archbishop Donoghue has traveled twice annually to celebrate Mass with Death Row inmates at Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson. Deacon Tom Silvestri serves as the Catholic chaplain at the prison where he has ministered since becoming a deacon in 1989.
“The men certainly enjoy the archbishop’s company,” said Silvestri. “In fact, last Thursday one of them asked if the archbishop could still come to say Mass even after the new archbishop arrives. I told him I’d write a letter and ask.”
When the archbishop has visited, Mass for those on Death Row has been celebrated in the Death Row barbershop prior to lunch. Following lunch, the archbishop would preside over a Mass for others in the prison chapel, which is where the sacraments of baptism and confirmation are administered as well.
“(The archbishop) is very well liked over there. He’s always very nice and gracious with his time. He treats (the inmates) with respect, and they return it.”
Besides ministering to Death Row inmates face-to-face, the archbishop has supported efforts in the archdiocese that have educated the faithful on the church’s opposition to the death penalty. As part of the Moratorium 2000 effort to end the death penalty begun by Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, Archbishop Donoghue wrote a letter to pastors encouraging them to incorporate the church’s teachings on the death penalty into one of their homilies and to make available the Moratorium 2000 petition to parishioners. Educational materials about the death penalty were also handed out at many parishes. Pax Christi members served as organizers for the event and were encouraged by the 12,000 signatures—including many from those who reconsidered their stance on the issue—of those opposing the death penalty.
In November of 2002, Boyert presented the first Archbishop John F. Donoghue “Evangelium Vitae” Award to the surprised archbishop for his pro-life leadership. His memory and dedication to pro-life issues will continue as others receive the award annually. His words will also remain, like those spoken on the night he accepted the award: “Looking back over the past 10 years, few things I have done in the archdiocese afford me with as much satisfaction as the recollection of the many hours I have spent, in public demonstrations and in meeting rooms, working with people like you—to defend children, to defend old people, and to defend those most silent and the most heart-wrenching victims of modern culture, the millions of babies who have not and are not allowed the human right and the sacred gift of being born. Our efforts this evening … mark the beginning of what must be our endless efforts to campaign for life, until laws protecting death exist no more.”
Jeremiah’s Call host Archbishop John F. Donoghue welcomes everyone to the “Give Thanks For Life” program at the Crown Plaza Ravinia Hotel on Nov. 24, 2003.