“The steps of a man are guided aright by the Lord, and he shall desire His way” (Psalm 36(37):23). These words of Scripture speak of the ministry of Archpriest John Kowalczyk, Director of Field Education at St. Tikhon’s Seminary, and Rector of St. Michael’s Orthodox Church in Jermyn, Pennsylvania (STOTS 1975). Fr. John has relentlessly sought to defend the unborn in articles, lectures, academic work, and in continued participation in the March for Life. On Wednesday, January 11, 2017, my wife and I had the pleasure to sit with Fr. John and his wife, Matushka Kathy, to discuss his spiritual journey leading him to participate in the March for Life.
It all began in 1987. Fr. John was already involved in the Sanctity of Life movement prior to marching, as a member of “Pennsylvanians for Human Life.” Another member challenged him to not only “talk the talk,” but “walk the walk” by going to the March for Life, which had been a yearly event since 1974. Fr. John had previously written the widely-distributed book, “An Orthodox View of Abortion” (Light and Life Publishing, Mpls, MN, 2nd ed., 1989), but had not yet attended the March for Life.
Fr. John was also encouraged to go by John and Valerie Protopappas and Fr. Edward Pehanich, of the organization “Orthodox Christians for Life.” Fr. John asked his bishop, Bishop Herman (now Metropolitan Herman), to go with him, and the two were joined by Martin Paluch, Bishop Herman’s assistant. With such incredible support all around him, it was clear that Fr. John needed to march.
However, that year there was a blizzard the day of the March, and only 30,000 of the typical 200,000 participants could bear the elements. Fr. John, Bishop Herman, and Martin had arrived in Washington, D.C. the day before, and were therefore fortunate to not have to drive through a foot of snow. Fr. John described this as a “paralyzing snowstorm,” and asserted that by the time the March began, a foot and a half of snow had already been dumped on the Capital.
Because of the blizzard, Fr. John and Metropolitan Herman were the only two religious leaders present. Nellie Gray, the co-founder and long-time President of the March for Life, therefore asked Fr. John to give the Invocation. Likewise, Bishop Herman spoke, the first Orthodox hierarch to address such a gathering. After the Benediction, Nellie Gray then expected that they would not march, as the religious leaders who opened the March with prayer did not march afterwards. She was surprised to hear that these three men were committed to marching—blizzard or no blizzard. This has inspired religious leaders since that time to more fully participate.
Since that year, the Orthodox Church has become “relentless” in their involvement, Fr. John was pleased to say. Many bishops and faithful of the Orthodox Church began to march, to publicly acknowledge the Orthodox position on abortion. “Orthodox Christians have become a natural presence,” he added, noting that from the first century all the way up to our time Orthodox Christians have defended unborn children and infants.
St. Tikhon’s Seminary started sending students to the March in 1988. Fr. John humbly said, “St. Tikhon’s talks the talk and walks the walk—and they invite others to join them.” Since that time, St. Tikhon’s has been sending students and faculty to the March nearly every year.
One of the highlights for Fr. John in his ministry of defending the unborn was the opportunity to meet Mother Teresa at The University of Scranton in 1989. Fr. John remembers that Mother Teresa said to him, “If the child in the womb is not safe, what hope is there for humanity?” He recalled that during her talk, someone asked her, “At the Judgment seat, Christ will judge us, and we will also question Him and say, ‘Lord, why was there so much sickness in the world? Why did we have cancer?’” And Mother Teresa replied, “Our Lord will answer, ‘Every time I sent a cure into the world, you aborted the child.” Fr. John continued on this thought: “We don’t know who we’re aborting. We’re aborting future leaders, scientists, musicians, doctors, etc.”
Fr. John received an icon of the greeting of Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45) from an Orthodox iconographer who was inspired by the Orthodox presence at the March for Life. As a result, thousands of copies of the icon have been reprinted and distributed. This joyous icon would lead the procession of the Orthodox contingent during the Marches, and many Christians of other traditions would even venerate it.
Fr. John is thankful for the support of his wife, Matushka Kathy, who would bring their children in a stroller on the March in the early years.
In the years that followed his first March for Life, Fr. John developed a close working relationship with Nellie Gray, hailed as the “Joan of Arc” of the Pro-Life movement. Up until her death in 2013, Nellie and Fr. John would regularly work together to discuss who would give which speeches at the next year’s March. Her death signaled the end of an era. Since that time, Fr. John has continued to attend the March for Life, yet is pleased to see other Orthodox Christians take up and share the leadership capacity that he carried for so many years.
What is the purpose of the March for Life? “To become a visible presence.” In Fr. John’s work as Director of St. Tikhon’s Field Education program, he stresses that seminarians’ visits to the local state prison are meant to engender experience in the “ministry of presence”—simply being with those who are suffering, much like Mary at the foot of the Cross. Likewise, attending the March is bearing witness to the Orthodox position on the tragedy of abortion. The March is not meant to be rancorous, but peaceful. “Let us depart in peace,” the priest says at the end of the Divine Liturgy. The March is a continuation of the Liturgy, Fr. John stressed. We carry that peace into the world, that we may bear witness to God’s love for every single precious human life—those who have been aborted, and those who have aborted.
Fr. John sees the date of the March for Life, typically January 22nd (the date of the Roe V. Wade decision), as falling conveniently within the liturgical cycle of the Orthodox Church: the Nativity of Christ, Theophany, the March for Life, and the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple on February 2nd. “In the Incarnation, Christ gave value and dignity to every human being,” Fr. John asserted. “It’s been my passion as a priest—the sanctity of life—because Christ came into the world to give us life, to give us eternal life, and He became one of us, that we may love one another.”
This year the March for Life in Washington, D.C. will take place on Friday, January 27th (the date has been moved because of the Inauguration of President-Elect Donald Trump). More information can be found on the OCA page covering the event and the March for Life website.
Fr. John insisted that “No one person can take ownership of [the growth of] this movement…All priests should be involved in some way.” However, it is clear that Fr. John’s steps have been “guided aright by the Lord,” that he has been instrumental in opening up the Pro-Life movement to Orthodox Christians; it is clear that he has desired the Lord’s way, so that those who are able will stand up for the most vulnerable: the silent unborn children.