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Canada July 9, 2018

Priest’s pro-life prayer, fast nears 30 years

By Deborah Gyapong

Father Tony Van Hee, SJ, has prayed and fasted on Parliament Hill for an end to abortion every day the House of Commons is in session for almost 30 years. (Deborah Gyapong photos)

OTTAWA—Father Tony Van Hee, 81, says the nearly three decades he has spent fasting and praying on Parliament Hill to end abortion have been the best years of his life.

“I have a need for solitude and the contemplative life of prayer and, oddly enough, I get that on Parliament Hill,” said the Jesuit priest who is a fixture on the Hill every day the House of Commons is in session, rain or shine, sweltering heat or the bitter cold of an Ottawa winter.

“I never really suffered much from the weather,” he said. “I dressed for it and I enjoyed being outside.
The wind and the rain were the most bothersome because the signs would be blowing.”

The rain was “a nuisance” because then “everything would have to be dried out.”

His ministry of fasting and prayer began in 1989 while he was involved with Operation Rescue, a pro-life organization that at the time used civil disobedience to protest against abortion.

Father Van Hee was inspired by the example of Kurt Gayle, one of the leaders of Operation Rescue in Canada, who had been on Parliament Hill in 1988 the summer following the Supreme Court’s Morgentaler decision striking down Canada’s abortion law. “He and another fellow fasted for 19 days, and put a balloon up in the air every five minutes to signify an abortion was taking place in Canada,” Father Van Hee said.

Gayle planned to return to the Hill to fast and pray in 1989. “I asked Kurt whether he thought it would be more productive for me to continue with Operation Rescue and be arrested, or join the fast,” Father Van Hee said, noting he had already had experience with long-term fasting, one for 33 days and another for 46 days.

Father Van Hee distributes Communion to Mary Wagner, who has spent years in jail for violating injunctions to stay away from abortion facilities.

“I think there are more people willing to go to jail than to fast,” Gayle told him, so Father Van Hee said, “I’ll fast.’”

Father Van Hee had already been arrested three times with Operation Rescue as members tried to prevent abortions from taking place by blocking entrances and other peaceful means. But Gayle and others knew the tactics were doomed in Canada, since most abortions take place in hospitals, not free-standing facilities. “You can’t do effective demonstrations at the hospitals,” Father Van Hee said. “[Gayle] knew it wouldn’t last very long.”

Gayle returned to the Hill in 1989 to fast and pray and Father Van Hee joined him in September. Gayle had to leave after 29 days to attend to a sick daughter, but Father Van Hee continued the fasting and praying vigil that has lasted nearly 30 years.

When he began, a new abortion law, Bill C-43, was before Parliament, designed to fill the legal void left by the Morgentaler decision by limiting the number of abortions.

“At the time, we thought we might only be there for two weeks or so,” he said. The bill was defeated by a tied vote in the Senate. Since then, the legal void has remained with no law restricting abortion through nine months of pregnancy.

Fast-forward to 2018 and much has changed in those years. Ontario and British Columbia both have “bubble zone” laws to keep pro-life demonstrators – even people quietly praying – at least 50 metres away from abortion facilities.

Operation Rescue is no longer a major player in Canada. In the United States, its tactics have moved to the courts and litigation rather than through civil disobedience.

Rules have also become much tighter on Parliament Hill for individual demonstrators. Father Van Hee must get a permit for his solitary protest, one he renews every three months, and he’s only allowed to have one sign. He wears a couple, sandwich-board fashion, loosely tied across his shoulders, and so far no one has stopped him. Protestors must stand and hold their sign and not leave them unattended on the Hill. Thus, he cannot depart from his position not far from the Centennial Flame for the hours between 9 and 3:30 pm, even to use the washroom. He uses a flexible stool to help support him during his vigils.

Gone are the days he could sit in a lawn chair with several signs in the grass around him. Or stand with his signs near the entrance where Members of Parliament go into Centre Block. In the 1990s, he could chat with the parliamentarians as they entered the building and use the washroom inside whenever he wanted.

One winter day in 2000, NDP MP Svend Robinson objected to one of his signs, and asked him, “Are you going to take that sign down?”

“Are you going to be open to the truth?” the priest responded.

The two went back and forth like this four or five times, Father Van Hee said, until Robinson grabbed the sign away.

“He took my sign and tried to crush it on the abutment there, but it was very strong, so he threw it over the wall,” Father Van Hee said.

A friendly RCMP officer came over and asked if the priest wanted to press charges, and several MPs came to the priest’s defence. He decided not to take it further.

He had a soft spot for Robinson, he said, because the MP had come to his defence when he was first arrested in 1989-90 on freedom of speech grounds.

After Robinson left politics, “when he’d come back to visit, he would come over and shake my hand,” Father Van Hee said. “We’ve always remained friends. We were never unfriendly in that sense.”

Father Van Hee, left, concelebrated at the funeral Mass of Cyril Winter, the first Ontarian to be charged under Ontario's abortion bubble zone law. Winter died only days before his first court appearance.

“I had no animosity towards them,” he said.

The 2001 terrorist attacks of 9/11 tightened up security on Parliament Hill and no longer could the priest stand near the entrance or use facilities inside.

The priest has been spat at and accosted, but he finds most of the interactions he has on the hill positive.

Though aware of recent court decisions and legal restrictions on religious freedom, freedom of expression and so on, Father Van Hee said he can’t be bothered with civil and legal aspects in the fight to respect the life of the unborn. “It’s a waste of time and energy. Fasting and praying is where it’s at.”

“I think that’s important for the pro-life movement to recognize,” he said.

“Ultimately in the battle against lies and violence, truth and love have no other weapon than the witness of suffering,” he said.

Though we have to fight, and struggle with God against evil, with our whole strength, our whole heart,” it must be done “without bitterness and without revolt, of course, but with an anticipatory tendency to acceptance and final resignation,” Father Van Hee said, noting he was inspired by the writing of Pope Benedict XVI.

“We are going to be defeated in this world, so get used to that,” he said. “Take on that as an attitude, but you fight and remain until that point comes. It’s like when Jesus began his Passion, he didn’t resist anymore, he didn’t fight anymore. He gave himself up to his enemies.”

In doing so, Christ “conquered his adversary,” he said.

Now that the House of Commons is on its summer break, Father Van Hee’s daily prayer and fasting vigils are over. But he plans to work one week with Show the Truth, a group that displays large graphic signs at busy intersections. “I offer Mass for them each day and I participate in the demonstrations, too.”

The priest has no problem with graphic signs. “I never bought one,” he said. But one was given to him years ago and he uses it. “It seemed very natural. I didn’t have a problem with it and I still don’t.”
“Sometimes I tell people, look at this crucifix,” he said. “This is a graphic sign and this doesn’t hurt and traumatize children.”

In 2014, Campaign Life Coalition dedicated the National March for Life to Father Van Hee for his then 25-years on the Hill.

Canadian Catholic News