PROVIDENCE — With some Catholics expressing concerns that recent remarks by Pope Francis - in which the pontiff said that “the church has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules,” - may be causing some faithful to curtail volunteering at pro-life vigils, nearly three dozen braved the midday rain and the occasional heckling from passing motorists as they clutched rosaries in prayer to outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Point Street on the Feast of St. Francis.
They gathered in a show of support for the lives of the unborn. The center provides abortion services to women, including a pill designed to terminate a pregnancy, as well as in-clinic abortions.
Some have wondered whether the pope’s remarks, which were intended to encourage Catholics to always be cognizant of the bigger picture and to not neglect their duty as Christians to minister to one another, might be misconstrued as a softening of the church’s position on some of its core principles, such as abortion.
With the annual 40 Days for Life Campaign under way – a time of prayer, fasting and peaceful activism with a goal of refocusing the world’s attention on preserving a culture of life – such gatherings take on added significance as the faithful make a unified stand in praying that laws permitting abortion be overturned.
Of the local front line activists taking to the streets during Friday’s vigil, which was held across the street from Planned Parenthood, some say that while they cannot be certain that the pope’s comments have in any way contributed to a slight downturn in their ranks, the rhetoric used against those keeping regular pro-life vigils outside local abortion clinics has increased.
In some cases, they say, not just passers-by, but clinic staff have taunted the peaceful activists, accusing them of being out of touch with the new direction they perceive the pope - through their misinterpretation of the pontiff’s comments – to be moving the church in.
“Some have said ‘You don’t even follow your own pope’,” said Joanne Ciocys, who serves as co-chairperson of the diocese’s Human Life Guild’s 40 Days for Life Campaign.
“We just kept praying; we knew it was a misunderstanding,” Ciocys said, recalling how abortion workers questioned why the group was keeping vigil outside a clinic a couple of weeks ago.
But for every taunt they have received for their stance against abortion, groups maintaining regular prayer vigils outside clinics have also received much support.
“There’s actually been a lot of encouragement now, more than I’ve ever seen,” Ciocys added. “They say, ‘We support what you’re doing, we’re praying for you.’”
She acknowledged that it has always been a challenge for the groups to recruit new members by encouraging them to break out of their comfort zones and join them in public prayer outside clinics. Many are happy to lend their support in less conspicuous ways.
On Friday, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, Bishop Thomas J. Tobin joined Father Christopher Mahar and Father Brian Sistare to show support for those who gathered to pray a rosary for the unborn outside the Point Street clinic.
The bishop prayed that the gift of peace would come to the world, especially to its unborn children, encouraging those gathered to continue their good and faithful work.
The bishop spoke of how Pope Francis recently spoke “very beautifully and very powerfully” about the evil of abortion, and how the unborn are treated in today’s society.
“He talked about abortion being part of the ‘throwaway culture’ to which we have become enslaved,” Bishop Tobin said referencing Pope Francis’ recent remarks. “If something is an inconvenience to us, we just throw it away.”
According to the pontiff, every human person bears the face of Christ. And when we throw away an unborn child or destroy an unborn child, we are destroying an image of God and the face of Christ.
That’s why the church’s commitment to human life is so very important, the bishop noted. If the church does not speak on behalf of the unborn, no one else will.
“It’s not just a political thing for us, it’s an act of faith. Because we believe in God, and because we believe that God created us in his image, every person has that great dignity and bears the image of God,” the bishop said.
Bishop Tobin said that some people have worried that this commitment to protecting the unborn could become an obsession for the faithful.
“But if it’s an obsession to protect human life, if it’s an obsession to protect the life of unborn children, then indeed it’s a very holy obsession,” Bishop Tobin said.
Marnie Crawford, the Respect Life representative at St. Francis de Sales Parish, North Kingstown, and a member of the diocese’s Human Life Guild, said that rather than trusting the mainstream media to receive the most credible reporting on pro-life issues – something which can easily lead to misinterpretations such as those of Pope Francis’ comments – she instead looks forward to the regular e-mail alerts posted by the 40 Days for Life organization.
She asserts that prayer groups should take comfort in knowing that they are winning the battle to save the unborn, one child at a time.
At the end of the summer, Crawford was in the middle of back-to-school shopping at the mall with her children when she received a text from a friend in one of the groups praying outside a Cranston abortion clinic informing her of a “save”. The prayer group had convinced a woman heading into the clinic for an abortion to reconsider her decision.
“It was just a thrill to hear of the save in Cranston,” she said.