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Pavone: It’s possible I missed laicization notice

Frank Pavone gives a reflection on Scripture on his YouTube channel. / Credit: Screengrab YouTube Jan. 7, 2023.

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jan 13, 2023 / 09:33 am (CNA).

Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life, was notified of his recent laicization, a diocesan official has told CNA, contradicting the ex-priest’s repeated claims that he has not received official notification of the Vatican’s decree dismissing him from the clerical state.

An official with the Amarillo Diocese in Texas, who asked not to be identified by name, told CNA that “the canonical process was followed, including physical and electronic notifications [of his laicization] at their proper time.”

The official’s account is at odds with Pavone’s prior statements to CNA and other media outlets claiming that he has received no such formal notification.

Pavone, who plans to hold a livestreamed press conference Friday ahead of next week’s March for Life in Washington, D.C., provided CNA a different answer Thursday when asked about the diocesan official’s statement.

“I have no idea what they sent me. The communication broke down a long time ago,” he wrote in a Jan. 12 email. “They may indeed have sent something. I simply did not see it.”

CNA broke the news of Pavone’s laicization on Dec. 17, 2022. That day, Pavone said it was the first time he had heard of the Nov. 9, 2022, decree by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Clergy, which cited Pavone’s “blasphemous communications on social media” and “persistent disobedience of the lawful instructions of his diocesan bishop,” without providing any specific details. The information was contained in a letter that Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, sent to U.S. bishops.

“How did CNA learn about this before I did?” Pavone asked at the time, later adding that CNA’s inquiry was “the very first communication that came to me about this.”

Four days later, in an interview with the YouTube show “Truth, Culture, Life,” Pavone made similar statements when he was asked if he was still a priest.

“I haven’t gotten anything … I can’t show you like a letter or a piece of paper that tells me I’ve been dismissed from the priesthood,” he said. “I don’t have any instructions. I wasn’t told ‘Oh you, you know, you can’t dress like a priest. You can’t be called Father. You can’t say Mass.’ I haven’t been told any of that.” Pavone has made similar statements to other media outlets.

That Pavone, a well-known figure in the pro-life movement for many years with a loyal social media following, would incur such a severe canonical penalty — and then not receive any formal notice of it either from his bishop or the Vatican — further stoked criticism of the Vatican’s action online among Pavone’s many supporters. An online petition calling for his reinstatement to the priesthood has reportedly garnered some 45,000 signatures.

The Amarillo official who spoke to CNA would not clarify when the diocese informed Pavone that he could no longer exercise his priestly functions. But Pavone on Thursday still professed to know nothing about any official notification.

“Well they can say ‘they informed me,’ but that statement alone ignores the entire context and the fact that the communication was abusive, broken, dishonest, for years,” he wrote in an email. “Again, people have to understand, none of this was normal.”

Pavone again referred CNA to a lengthy account he has posted on his website detailing his past conflicts with Amarillo Bishop Patrick Zurek and other Church leaders. Pavone said the conflicts with Zurek reached the point that he asked the diocese not to contact him anymore.

“I told the bishop not to. And the Vatican knew it,” he told CNA.

“This was not a normal relationship. It was abuse. If they say they sent something, they are admitting to violating a very serious, long-standing set of instructions to stop abusing and harassing me,” he said.

“That abuse obviously continues, and therefore our canonical and civil remedies will continue as well,” he added.

Pavone’s conflicts with Bishop Zurek have centered on Priest for Life’s fiscal operations, Pavone’s provocative social media posts and past roles with Donald Trump’s presidential campaigns, and Pavone’s livestreamed endorsement of Trump just before the 2016 election when the pro-life activist placed the remains of an aborted baby on an office table many believed to be an altar.

Pavone, for his part, contends that Zurek and others have tried to undermine him and his pro-life ministry over the years because of his outspokenness on the abortion issue and his harsh denunciations of the Democratic Party, which he contends many in the U.S. Catholic hierarchy are reluctant to alienate.

Even the Vatican, however, “realized the relationship and the communication with Amarillo were broken beyond repair,” Pavone wrote in an email Thursday, pointing to permission he received from the Vatican in 2019 to transfer to the Diocese of Colorado Springs, which Zurek refused to allow.

“So no documents were expected to come to ‘me,’” he said, referring to any notification the Amarillo Diocese may have sent him about his laicization.

“The diocese and the Vatican know well how to reach my team,” he added, citing instructions he said he received from Archbishop Pierre, the U.S. nuncio, telling Pavone that he could not officiate at the recent funeral Mass for his father.

‘Personal animus’

Originally a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, Pavone, now 63, transferred to the Amarillo Diocese in 2005. He remained incardinated there — meaning he served as a priest under the authority of the local bishop — until his laicization late last year.

While he continued to say Mass online for weeks after the Vatican’s decree, Pavone is now going by “Frank Pavone” on all his social media channels. His profile picture on the different social media channels has changed from a photo of him in his priestly collar and a red Donald Trump-styled “Make America Great Again” hat to different photos of him without the collar. Pavone has said he plans to appeal his case to Pope Francis, and to his successor, if necessary, to be reinstated.

Neither Zurek nor the diocese has issued any public statements on Pavone’s case, though it has posted Pierre’s letter to the bishops on its website, without comment.

The Vatican’s decree has no bearing on the continued operations of Priests for Life, a nonprofit pro-life advocacy organization that relocated from New York to Titusville, Florida, in 2016. Pavone has served as its national director since 1993.

Pavone has circulated a pair of letters he says support his claims that Bishop Zurek was determined to get rid of him.

One of the letters was written in March 2016 by the late Monsignor Harold Waldow, then Amarillo’s vicar of clergy, attesting to the “personal animus” Zurek exhibited toward Pavone.

“I have witnessed occasions at which Bishop Zurek was present for any variety of meetings, such as the presbyteral council, priests’ retreats, Holy Week liturgies, and funeral celebrations, during which Father Pavone’s name would come up, often in the context of positive comment about his ministry within the diocese and elsewhere,” Waldow wrote.

“Bishop Zurek often takes these occasions to reveal the toxic nature of his relationship to Father Pavone. He makes remarks publicly about sensitive matters concerning Father Pavone. On more than one occasion he has seriously misrepresented the actual situation by his remarks,” he continued.

“While there were occasions in which I had to speak with him about sensitive, even unpleasant matters, Father Pavone, in my experience, demonstrated himself to be an effective and generous priest, completely dedicated to the ministry, especially pro-life ministry. I have seen the fruits of his ministry in the diocese and elsewhere on the national and international scene,” Waldow wrote.

“It is in this context that I encouraged Father Pavone to leave the diocese and place himself beyond the impact of Bishop Zurek’s personal animus toward him, so that he could continue to flourish as a priest and that the fruits I had seen personally could continue to mature.”

‘Frank, you are incorrigible’

A second letter, dated May 5, 2017, a little over a year after Waldow’s, is from Zurek. The bishop wrote that he would pursue the priest’s laicization if Pavone didn’t voluntarily submit his own request to be dismissed from the clerical state. Zurich gave Pavone 15 days to respond.

“It is with a heavy heart, but also with absolute frustrations with you that I write this letter,” is how Zurek began. He cited Pavone’s “scandalous behavior,” “involvement in partisan politics,” “persistent disobedience,” and “lack of respect for legitimate ecclesial authority, control, and oversight.”

Much of the letter concerns the 2016 episode dealing with the aborted baby’s remains.

“I have received hundreds of emails, many calls, letters, and notes from Catholics, non-Catholics” and non-Christians, Zurek wrote. “All were outraged, horrified, and deeply scandalized by your actions. The gravest damage has resulted.”

Zurek also cited Pavone’s “partisan rhetoric in favor of one political candidate and party,” which the bishop said was a violation of canon law.

“Frank, you are incorrigible,” Zurek wrote.

“You have no respect for me, my office, my authority, my oversight,” he wrote.

“I have been dealing with your disobedience and scandalous behavior for years. There is nothing more I can do with you,” he wrote.

“In good conscience, I will not even consider allowing you to excardinate to another diocese,” the bishop concluded.

“You would just continue to be disobedient and act scandalously, as you have in your excardination from New York into the Amarillo Diocese,” he wrote, adding: “My predecessor, Bishop Yanta, told me that he deeply regrets incardinating you into the Amarillo Diocese.”

In a statement Thursday, Pavone claimed Zurek never fully investigated the facts of the 2016 incident and misrepresented Pavone’s other alleged infractions.

Pavone said the two letters, taken together, provide a fuller picture of what led up to the Vatican’s drastic measures against him. And he stood by his earlier statements that he has not seen any official notification of his laicization.

“My public comments are consistent with what the official says here. I simply have been saying that I, personally, have not seen the decree, nor has my canonical team,” he said.

“But again, both the diocese and the Vatican knew of my communication to the bishop that any further effort to contact me directly would be considered and treated as harassment,” he added. “In my experience, this was not a process; it was abuse, and the authorities need to respect that whether they agree with it or not.”

You can read Bishop Zurek’s full letter to Frank Pavone below:

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  1. Mr Pavone has admitted he plugged his ears and ignored his superiors in the Church. Well done, I guess. Strained and adversarial relations are lamentable, but the Gospel would suggest that if the man judges his bishop has something against him, he was bound to go to Bishop Zurek and make peace. Basic Sermon on the Mount. How many of us have taught our kids to do that? Reconcile when you are aware someone has issues with you.

    That said, any Masses said after the decree was signed are invalid.

  2. “That said, any Masses said after the decree was signed are invalid.”
    > Actually, still valid, but illicit.
    Any confessions would be invalid though (unless in danger of death)

    • Well, more likely invalid, given the strict treatment of sacramental forms like baptism. Whether Mr Pavone was expecting such a decree and still offering Mass, that flirts with a case for excommunication.

      Ken’s observations are quite apt, and I’ll add another. Mr Pavone has brought scandal upon himself and the pro-life movement. The 45k signatories are certainly feeling it. But none of them were ever going to get an abortion or support a loved one or friend who did. How many thousands of fence-sitters see a pro-life celebrity acting like a arrogant money-raking buffoon and think, “Gee, what a witness. Surely he must be right.” He has made no converts. Instead, he acts like a lay partisan politician, talking about lawsuits and money and persecution.

      What a loss. By now, he could be a revered pastor in one of the biggest cities on the planet, serving the common good, and pursuing his pro-life apostolate in writing and the occasional speaking gig. All while real life in a real parish would ground him for effective ministry. One has to ask: why did he even bother with seminary and priesthood? What good has that done?

  3. Father Pavone must be credited for doing more for the unborn than most Catholics. And, by the way, I’ll always refer to him as FATHER Pavone. You cannot laicize a priest since ordination imparts an indelible seal. You may strip him of his faculties but he’s still a priest.

    • Pavone was asked by his bishop in New York, Cardinal Egan, to set aside his full-time pro-life work and take on a parish assignment. That’s a completely legitimate order by a bishop — one that a priest is bound by his ordination promises to obey. Pavone refused. And that was just the beginning.

      No one questions the importance of pro-life activities or Pavone’s passion and dedication to the pro-life cause. But a priest’s first and foremost role in the Church — most of the time, anyway — is sacramental and pastoral ministry to the faithful in a parish. And when a bishop wants to place a priest in that role, the priest must obey. Period.

      Pavone saw his pro-life work as his “vocation.” But it isn’t one. It’s an apostolate. That’s not semantics. Words mean things. The priesthood was his vocation.

      And now he’s being quoted saying things that indicate something very troubling: he seems to think that he, the priest, could boss his bishop around. He seems to think that it was okay for him, as a priest, to tell his bishop to do this or to not do that. That’s pretty unreal.

      He was given legit orders by his bishops — both of them — to take on parish work, at a time when there are priests shortages and parish coverage is stretched thin as it is. He was obligated to obey and to help shoulder that burden. But he refused. That’s unacceptable.

      It’s very hard to see this as a case of “good priest vs. bad, vindictive bishops.”

      • I didn’t say that FATHER Pavone did not disobey his bishop. I simply indicated that he’d done a commendable job for the cause of the unborn and that you cannot undo a priest’s ordination – you can only remove his faculties. I still think he should be called by his title, “Father.”

      • Right on. His remarks in this article are jaw-dropping! He has a vow of obedience to his bishop, and he thinks he can order his bishop not to contact him? That’s not the way things work!

        (And no, he is not “Father Pavone” any more. It’s true he is a priest forever, but he may not present himself as a priest any longer, nor should others treat him as one.)_

        • Garth writes: “(And no, he is not “Father Pavone” any more. It’s true he is a priest forever, but he may not present himself as a priest any longer, nor should others treat him as one.)_”

          Since Pavone is a priest forever, he can correctly present himself as just such a priest according to the Order of Melchizedek, and he should be treated as one insofar as such is known by others. What must be avoided is conflating being a priest in the Order of Melchizedek with being an active priest in good standing with the Church, which he is not, and indeed he is also no longer “Father Pavone.” Still, if any emergencies arise, he can engage in priestly functions such as last rites. Otherwise, he cannot engage in priestly functions.

      • There are more babies aborted than born in New York, for a certain race, is that correct? Is not pro life work like the work of the Good Samaritan, the plight of the beaten man, bypassed by others of authority in the world?

        Creative people often have trouble dealing with authority – just saying.
        A Bishop is not infallible, and was formed from clay like the rest of us.

    • I totally agree–God Bless Fr. Pavone…… he is a true man of God. He has stood up for the innocent babies for years, more that any priest I know has. Sure he tells it like it is…. some can’t take that, I wonder why? Can’t handle the real holocaust that everyday is happening.Wake up Catholic’s and get involved with what the Catholic Church is to be doing– saving God’s babies.Even if it means that one has to go out of their comfort zone. Many martyr’s did.Fr.Pavone’s voice will never be silent,for he speaks for those that never were given the opportunity to speak,those aborted babies. Take away a good man from the priesthood is like taking away Jesus, and we all know what He did for us–our salvation.

  4. Among many misconceptions repeated by too many commenters in all sorts of forums is the notion that obedience to a bishop is virtually absolute, but this is not the case. A priest can appeal to Rome a directive given to that priest by a bishop if the priest believes his circumstances provide a reasonable exception to otherwise obeying a lawful directive. If Rome agrees with the priest, the priest is found not guilty of unlawful disobedience, and he does not have to follow the bishop’s directive. But if Rome sides with the bishop, then the priest is obligated to follow the bishop’s directive.

    Fr. Pavone succeeded in making such an appeal to Rome during his early run-in with Bp. Zurek sometime around 2012-2014 or so, and things kinda calmed down for a while.

    The fact that Fr. Pavone succeeded in his initial appeal to Rome should stop commenters from bringing up Fr. Pavone’s initial dispute with Bp. Zurek as if he was guilty of wrongful disobedience, but that “case” is still improperly used to tar and feather Pavone and unjustly present him as a repeat offender of proper authority.

    The present sad case is separate despite similar issues and the same parties involved. Canon lawyer Fr. Gerald Murray has set forth that the punishment imposed on Pavone for his actions deserve punishment, but laicization goes beyond canon law (how ironic). As such, the laicization can only come from the Pope himself since canon law prescribes a lesser penalty such as a suspension, etc.

    It should also be noted that a priest as well as anyone else can have multiple vocations or even vocations within vocations. So while many priests are content simply serving as diocesan priests, others add another vocation to their priestly vocation by also serving specific apostolates or serving in special capacities (the service and dedication to it constitutes the vocation) while simultaneously maintaining their priestly vocation as well. Until laicized, Pavone was doing just that, but in a broader sense, since he is a priest forever in the Order of Melchizedek, he maintains a dual vocation to the priesthood and to the pro-life apostolate.

  5. Question: Checking mail was indeed the right way for Pavone to go, so he was wrong in refusing to accept such. Nevertheless, a decree such as the one advising of laicization should also include the need for an acknowledgment of receipt within a very short period of time, like a few days to a week at most. Since an acknowledgment of receipt was not received, and there was known to be refusals of mail by Pavone, why wasn’t the order/decree then hand-delivered directly to Pavone in much the same way that being served with notice of a lawsuit, etc., is done in the secular world? Such a delivery could also be video-taped if desired, but a statement of delivery by the designated delivery person/designated “officer” of the nuncio’s office or bishop’s office would also suffice.

    Question: What took the Apostolic nuncio so long to write the letter to the US Bishops advising of Pavone’s laicization?

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