As the lockdown continued in Titusville, Florida, home of Priests for Life, Father Frank Pavone, National Director, agreed to sit down for an interview with Theresa Watson, executive manager for the pro-life ministry. The following is slightly edited for clarification.
Theresa Watson: Hello, brothers and sisters, I’m Theresa Watson from Priests for Life. I’m the Executive Manager. Usually Father Frank is doing interviews and today we’re going to change it up a little bit and I’m actually going to interview him. So thank you for joining us.
Many people see you in this public role, but give us a little insight into your personal life. Were you always interested in the church?
Fr. Frank Pavone: I went to public schools growing up. I would not say we were deeply involved in the church, but we did go to mass as a family. I did have a saint as a pastor though, I have to say. I grew up in Port Chester, New York, the parish of Corpus Christi, a Salesian parish. One of the successors of the St. John Bosco community was beatified, Blessed Philip Rinaldi. His nephew, Father Peter Rinaldi, was my pastor all during my years growing up.
Everyone in Port Chester to this day will say the man was a saint. When I was in my last year of high school I began paying more attention to the Church, praying more, reading scripture, going to mass every day and Father Rinaldi then became my first spiritual director. I went to him with my desire to start moving toward the priesthood. So in a nutshell that’s what happened.
Theresa Watson: Awesome. So I understand you were very interested in your studies in school. Tell us about that.
Fr. Frank Pavone: I was very intensely interested in my studies. Now of course, I had friends – I have a brother two years younger than I am and we would get together with our friends. We lived 10 minutes from Playland amusement park and we loved to go there on the rides. There was row boating there. I was a Boy Scout and we went on camping trips and so I was involved in all those kinds of normal activities. But it was not unusual at all to find me in the public library, or as my mom will tell you, in our living room I would have my books and papers sprawled out all over the floor studying for hours and hours on end.
I remember filling those long yellow notepads with handwritten notes on psychology. I devoured books on psychology.
I ended up graduating a year early. There was a group of students in my high school class who got permission to finish a year early, because again all of us were kind of the same way. We were into our studies. They let us move ahead at our own pace and so I graduated high school in three rather than four years and ended up valedictorian of my class. Which was kind of fun because I was able to give a speech about faith and service and God because by that time – and there was another fellow in my class who had the same kind of spiritual awakening during that same period of time, he ended up becoming a doctor – but the two of us during that senior year of high school were proclaiming the Gospel everywhere in a public school. So I got a chance to proclaim it in my speech to my classmates on graduation day.
Theresa Watson: What was your favorite subject?
Fr. Frank Pavone: Math. I remember being in the seventh grade, my math teacher called me aside one day because she noticed I was bored in class. Not because I wasn’t interested in the topic but because I was so interested that I went ahead on my own pace. This was when I was in the seventh grade.
So she arranged for me to take my math classes at the high school when I was in seventh and eighth grade – I’d be going up to the high school just for math. And then when I was in high school they arranged for me to go to the local community college for my math courses.
Math is what led me to God, led me to the priesthood. Because the deeper you go into math the more abstract it becomes and the concepts that you deal with are not that far from the concepts of philosophy and then theology.
For example, the concept of infinity is not that far from the concept of eternity. The mathematical formulas that you start to learn, well you start to ask, who invented this? Because they’ve been that way for as long as human history records. Where did this come from? And you have to think about the intelligence behind the universe. In short, math and my love of math led me to a deeper faith.
Theresa Watson: What a blessing to be able to have teachers that saw that in you –
Fr. Frank Pavone: I remember one time in the ninth grade, I was working on a trigonometry problem and my teacher knew I was working on it and I had it laid out on the floor in my living room at home. I was working after school one day on this problem that filled up this entire page and I finally solved it. I picked up that paper, I ran. The high school was right across the street from the house where I grew up and my teacher was still there and I went to find her. I said “Look, look, I solved the problem.” It was a passion. Learning and studying and reading are still very much a passion of mine.
Theresa Watson: When did you develop the interest and desire to speak in public?
Fr. Frank Pavone: When I was about 9 years old my mom got me and my brother these little cassette tape recorders and we started recording. “Hi, this is Frankie and Joey and we’re here. It’s December 5, and it’s cloudy today outside. It might rain a little while but we’ve got our friends over.” We developed a hobby of recording all sorts of things – friends coming over, vacations. I didn’t realize it then but I was getting a lot of training in public speaking, radio and enunciating, being heard clearly, making sense in full sentences. Because we’d be making all these tapes and what would we be doing? We’d be listening back to them! I always recommend to my brother priests and deacons to record their homilies. I recorded every one of my homilies when I was doing parish work, and most of them are on our website. When you record them and you listen back, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that it sounds better than you thought it sounded and certain things maybe you thought sounded great didn’t come out so good.
But you learn a lot about how you come across and therefore I basically I trained myself. I was never afraid of public speaking I always loved doing it.
Theresa Watson: When you entered the priesthood, did you ever imagine that you’d be leading a worldwide ministry?
Fr. Frank Pavone: Not quite, but I had the heart for it. In my room, in my seminary I actually had a quote from a Protestant reformer on the wall, John Wesley. I had a map of the world on my wall and it said “All the world is my parish.” Now, of course nobody can foresee the future, I didn’t know that this conversation would be going to a worldwide audience. This whole ministry, Priest for Life, is worldwide. I didn’t know that that would be the case, but that was my heart
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So God nurtured that fire in my heart. Some church leaders have been critical over the years and one in particular said my story is a reflection of narcissism, of selfishness. I’d like to ask him what signs he had on his wall. If I had a wall filled with pictures of myself, that’s narcissism – but if you have a map of the world that says all the world is my parish, that’s a desire for service. So I praise the Lord that he’s fanned the flame of that desire every single day since then.
Theresa Watson: What did your fellow seminarians think of you?
Fr. Frank Pavone: They had a high regard for my intelligence and I had a high regard for many of them who were very intelligent too. But they would often refer to me in that way, oh we go to Frank to get the answers to these questions and so let’s see if he knows this. They knew that I liked public speaking. We even did some media, some radio work at seminary and in fact, one of the people many of our viewers might know, Michael Voris of Church Militant. He was a classmate of mine at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York.
He and I and about five other seminarians worked on a radio show together, this was in the mid to late 80s. I was ordained in ’88 and so my classmates they would often look to me for advice about things like that.
And they always thought of me as someone who really strongly loved and defended the magisterium of the church and the teaching of the bishops. I mean we were all of that mindset. We were Catholic seminarians under Cardinal John O’Connor, no less, who of course was a great churchman.
But I had a particular emphasis of that in my own spirituality. When the bishops would write or would publish anything they knew that I was among the most enthusiastic in spreading that and defending it.
Theresa Watson: Before you started leading Priests for Life, you were a parish priest. How did you like that?
Fr. Frank Pavone: I loved it. I love parish work. I was assigned to St. Charles on Staten Island, a very large parish of 3,000 families. We had a school 600 students right there on the property and it was great. I had a great pastor; there was an associate and then a retired pastor. So it was the four of us, we had three deacons. That’s a great pastoral team.
I remember some of my classmates would say they didn’t like doing weddings or funerals because there were so many people who didn’t go to church any other time. But I loved it. I would stand on the receiving line after the wedding where people would come and greet the bride and groom and the parents and the best man and the maid of honor. I said, well, let them get a chance to greet the priest, too. So many people would come through that line who hadn’t been to church in decades, they had never shaken a hand of a priest in their life. And I stood there and I said welcome, you are welcome here, it is so nice to have you here.
When I did wake services I would ask the funeral director if there was a room where I could hear confessions after the service. I would tell people that tomorrow we would be having the funeral for their loved one and one of the best ways to help them spiritually is to be able to receive communion and offer it for them, but you may not have been to church in a while so maybe it’s time to go to confession. So what would happen is they would put me in a room and there’d be a little pause. I’d wait there patiently and then one person would come and bravely see what’s this priest going to be like and invariably I’d hear their confession, they’d go back and then all the sudden a whole bunch of people would come, one after another. What was funny was one of the rooms they often put me in was the room with all the caskets. There it was easy to say to people, “Well, you better repent because life is short.”
Theresa Watson: What did you do on your days off when you were a parish priest?
Fr. Frank Pavone: Well, people are going to laugh at this. I had one day off. It was usually Wednesdays and it would usually start with a 6:45 a.m. mass. I’d have to say mass at the parish before I went on my day off, sometimes there’d be a funeral at 9:30. So that’s a nice way of starting a day off – mass, funeral and then I’d get in my car. Usually I’d go up to Port Chester; it’s about 90 minutes away, my parents still live there and I would go visit with my parents. But often enough I would go first to teach a Bible course in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, which borders Port Chester.
Then I’d spend time with my family and at night I would teach another Bible class before driving back to Staten Island. But this is the way I’ve always been. Everybody needs time off – it’s not wise, it’s not healthy never to take a break, but I find I don’t need much of a break. You know even now, I don’t have a day off every week. I’ll take one day once in a while where I’ll completely disconnect, leave my cellphone in my room and go – I love the seashore, I’ve always grown up near the water. I like amusement parks. But one solid day of disconnecting for me is quite enough for a good long interval. But we all need breaks and some people more than others.
Theresa Watson: I understand from a previous interview that you invested your own money into Priests for Life when you took over the organization?
Fr. Frank Pavone: There was no budget to speak of. The priests who started it out in San Francisco, they had $3,000 in the bank account when I took over full-time in the fall of 1993. They said “Take this money and defend life.” I had no staff, no office, no fund-raising plan to speak of. We had a little newsletter that we sent out to a few thousand people. I built it up from scratch and so the question right away was, how do I do this?
How do I travel? Because I started traveling to meet with different pro-life groups to get them aware of Priests for Life. How do you do anything? Well I was never a spender, never. I mean I don’t have any kind of expensive habits and any money I made as a parish priest I saved it, I didn’t spend it.
When I got ordained, of course – when you get ordained you get a nice bunch of gifts. I think that added to my personal savings and so did the work that I did before going into the seminary. When I got my paycheck I never had much to spend it on.
So when I started with Priests for Life I said to myself, now I know what I want to give my money to, my energy, my time, my life. I had gotten that call of conscience. And so that’s exactly what I did. It wasn’t even uppermost in my mind. Whenever there was a bill to be paid, I just wrote a check. And as we started hiring a staff, building up the organization, I didn’t take any salary, because I said I don’t need one.
I’m going to just live off of my savings and actually I did that for a very long time, where I was basically volunteering as the director of Priests for Life up until just a few years ago really. I just utilized every dime of my personal savings and any time anyone would give me money, for a birthday gift or on a speaking engagement sometimes they’ll give you a little extra something, here this is for you personally – I just put it back into Priests for Life. What I would advise anybody who wants to get something started is this: Don’t draw any boundaries. If you really believe in something there’s one way it’s going to succeed, and that’s by giving it everything.
Theresa Watson: What else did you do to help Priests for Life to grow?
Fr. Frank Pavone: We went to the other leaders in the movement and asked how we could help them. It’s not that we had anything financially to give them but we said, how can we help you? And you develop those relationships and you develop those partnerships and if you’ve got something to say and you make the connections with people who care about what you’re saying, it’s going to grow. You’re going to get well known and that’s what started happening.
People started inviting me to speak and so forth and you know, like I said before about not taking any salary, it was like what do I need it for?
On a typical week – pre-pandemic, of course – I’m getting on a plane on Thursday morning to fly to, say, St. Louis. A pro-life group is paying the ticket to fly me out there, they’re covering my meals while I’m there giving three or four talks a day, speaking all weekend in the parish and then flying back. And I got to the point where my travel schedule on the average brought me to three or four states a week. So it’s like I’m traveling 70, 85, 80 percent of the time and that’s how it grows. How it grows is that you make yourself present and you’re talking about things that matter. You have to have a relevant ministry.