by Katie Yoder and Zelda Caldwell
The national director of Priests for Life, Frank Pavone, canceled a scheduled livestreamed Mass today, one day after CNA published a report that he was continuing to celebrate Mass after the Vatican had removed him from the priesthood.
In a defiant statement addressed to Church leaders and posted on his organization’s website Saturday, Pavone vowed to continue his ministry despite his dismissal from the clerical state.
“It’s about the millions of supporters of the movement I help to lead and will continue to lead,” he wrote, adding that he would respond by taking “all appropriate canonical and civil action as well as public communications to the Faithful.”
Editor’s note: Fr. Pavone has been involved in pro-life activism in Vermont. In 2019, he invited sponsors of Proposition 5 to meet with him. None did. Proposition 5 led to Article 22, the constitutional amendment enshrining unrestricted access to abortion and other acts of ‘personal reproductive autonomy.”
Lawmakers who voted for Prop 5 “contradicted their role as public servants,” he said.
“I have invited sponsors of this bill to speak to me, in a non-adversarial manner, about why they think this kind of extreme measure needs to be on the books in Vermont,” Pavone wrote the Priests For Life website May 23, 2019. “No one has taken me up on the offer. But I am still looking forward to speaking to any lawmaker who sponsored or supports this bill.”
“If legislators are not willing to talk about what’s in this bill, maybe they shouldn’t be voting for it,” Pavone added.
Pavone also has visited Vermont, speaking before pro-life groups.
In a Dec. 13 letter to U.S. bishops obtained by CNA and confirmed by multiple sources as authentic, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, wrote that the prefect of the Dicastery for the Clergy issued the decision on Nov. 9, adding that there was “no possibility of appeal.”
The letter indicated that Pavone has been dismissed from the clerical state for “blasphemous communications on social media” and “persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop,” CNA reported yesterday. The communication from Pierre does not specify the actions that led to Pavone’s dismissal or name the bishop he disobeyed.
“Father Pavone was given ample opportunity to defend himself in the canonical proceedings, and he was also given multiple opportunities to submit himself to the authority of his diocesan bishop,” explains a separate statement attached to Pierre’s letter. “It was determined that Father Pavone had no reasonable justification for his actions.”
The statement refers to Pavone as “Mr. Pavone” and calls him “a lay person,” underscoring the dramatic and immediate nature of the Vatican’s action.
Pavone remains defiant, calls himself ‘Father’
Pavone has continued to celebrate Mass since the Vatican’s communication, including a Mass streamed online Saturday. The Priests for Life website states that Pavone “is a Catholic priest in good standing, and exercises his ministry in full communion with the Catholic Church.”
In an email to CNA on Saturday, Pavone said that he was not aware of the Vatican’s action.
“How did CNA learn about this before I did?” he asked. In a subsequent email, he added that CNA’s inquiry was “the very first communication that came to me about this.”
Saturday evening he posted a defiant statement to his followers, in which he addressed statements to Pope Francis, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, and the U.S. bishops.
The statement was signed “Fr. Frank Pavone” in spite of the Vatican’s announcement that he is no longer a priest.
Addressing Pope Francis, Pavone wrote: “Your Holiness, I want to continue serving as a faithful priest and full-time pro-life leader. You can allow me to do so under a supportive bishop, and many of the faithful understand that this is the most reasonable solution.”
To Archbishop Pierre, the apostolic nuncio, he wrote: “Your Excellency, your communication to the bishops dated December 13th contains serious errors and omissions. But that has marked this process all along, so there is no surprise there, and those errors will be addressed separately and thoroughly.
“But in particular, when you say there is ‘no possibility of appeal’ to this decision, you speak only in a very narrow legal sense, and completely ignore the appeal that is being made to the People of God themselves. This is not just about me; it’s about the millions of supporters of the movement I help to lead and will continue to lead, and of the work that the People of God have already evaluated and judged worthy of their ongoing support,” Pavone wrote.
He then vowed to take legal action and make a direct appeal to his supporters.
“To those of you who have been part of this travesty publicly or in the shadows, we will be taking all appropriate canonical and civil action as well as public communications to the Faithful,” Pavone wrote.
It is not clear in what diocese Pavone, 63, is incardinated as a priest. On the Priests for Life website, it says he received permission from the Vatican in 2019 to transfer from the Diocese of Amarillo, Texas, where he was incardinated in 2005, to another, unnamed diocese.
Pavone hosted the show “Defending Life” on EWTN for many years until the bishop of Amarillo, Texas, revoked Pavone’s permission to appear on the network. EWTN is the parent organization of CNA.
A history of clashes with hierarchy
Originally based in Staten Island, New York, Priests for Life is now headquartered in Titusville, Florida, within the Diocese of Orlando. That diocese, also, did not respond to CNA’s request for comment Saturday.
Pavone has served as the pro-life organization’s national director since 1993.
In that role he has a long history of conflicts with bishops, beginning more than 20 years ago with the late Cardinal Edward Egan of the Archdiocese of New York. Egan succeeded the late Cardinal John J. O’Connor, who ordained Pavone in 1988 and encouraged his pro-life work.
In his email, Pavone directed CNA to a document posted on his personal website titled “Summary of How Fr. Frank and Priests for Life Have Been Treated by Some in the Hierarchy.”
“We all expect that the pro-abortion groups, like Planned Parenthood, will target, harass and try to intimidate us. And they do try,” he wrote.
“But when such treatment comes from bishops and other Church authorities — which it increasingly does — it’s particularly deplorable,” he added. “Instead of supporting and encouraging the pro-life work of the Church, some of these men try to obstruct and hinder it, and abuse their authority to try to intimidate priests and laity who make ending abortion the top priority of our lives.”
Pavone has been at odds with Bishop Patrick J. Zurek in Amarillo since the latter became bishop there in 2008. In 2011, Zurek publicly suspended Pavone, though Pavone later had the suspension overruled by the Vatican. The Amarillo Diocese did not respond to CNA’s requests for comment prior to publication.
Pavone’s political activism played a role in his problems in Amarillo.
An outspoken supporter of former president Donald Trump, Pavone served on official Trump campaign outreach positions in 2016 and was originally a co-chair of Trump’s 2020 pro-life coalition as well as an advisory board member of Catholics for Trump. Canon law forbids clerics from having an active role in political parties unless they receive the permission of their bishop.
In November 2016, Pavone filmed a video at the Priests for Life headquarters, urging support for Trump. The video was staged with the body of an aborted baby laid before Pavone on what appeared to be an altar.
Zurek said soon after the video’s release that he would open an investigation into the incident, calling it “against the dignity of human life” and “a desecration of the altar,” adding that “the action and presentation of Father Pavone in this video is not consistent with the beliefs of the Catholic Church.”
LifeNews Note: Katie Yoder writes for Catholic News Agency, where this column originally appeared. Zelda Caldwell is News Editor at Catholic News Agency based in Washington, DC. She previously worked for Aleteia, as News and Culture editor.