A growing trickle of pro-life activists at St. Anthony of Padua Parish has turned into a powerful river.

In just two years, the parish’s participation in 40 Days for Life, the annual demonstration that involves several weeks of prayer and peaceful protest outside B.C. Women’s Hospital, has more than doubled.

“A lot of Catholics are pro-life, but they don’t know what to do and they don’t know how to engage in stopping abortion,” said pastor Father Justin Huang.

In 2017, he made an intentional effort to invite as many parishioners as possible to participate in 40 Days for Life. As the start of the annual campaign drew near, he preached about life issues and invited longtime pro-life advocate John Hof to address the congregation. In response, 120 people signed up.

“The 120 are the stalwarts. They will do anything,” said Father Huang, calling it a good first step. “After that, it gets much harder.”

The following year, Father Huang started promoting 40 Days for Life one month before it began, mentioning it in his homily, handing out sign-up cards, and inviting one parishioner affected by abortion to share her testimony. This time, 220 people stepped up and filled time slots for two days.

In 2019, Father Huang was even more ambitious. He hoped to fill four of the 40 days with volunteers from St. Anthony’s. Again, he used all his usual means of promotion, but one week before the pro-life campaign began, only 159 people had signed up. He prayed about it, stayed up to 2:30 a.m. re-writing his homily for the following Sunday, and hoped for the best.

That weekend alone, participation spiked to 307, which is 29 per cent of the entire parish’s population.

Father Huang (right) with members of St. Anthony of Padua. (Photo by Vera Rahardja)

“That’s the goal: We want to be a pro-life parish, not only in name and value, but in action,” said Father Huang.

He said it hasn’t been easy, and he’s learned a lot in the process, but the parish has already experienced incredible benefits.

“Here at our parish, once Ash Wednesday comes, we know that’s 40 Days for Life time,” he said. Young women, moms with strollers, elementary students, businessmen, and elderly ladies from the Catholic Women’s League alike are seen signing up to participate in the pro-life effort, in a parish where there is no dedicated pro-life club.

“40 Days for Life is what I’d call pretty mild, but it’s a step up for most Catholics. Standing out there with signs is, for most Catholics, pretty intimidating.”

Many find that after participating once, it becomes easier to take part a second time or get involved in other initiatives. “When people become that confident in standing up for their faith and what they believe in, they become more confident in everything else: in inviting others to Alpha, in speaking to people about their faith,” said Father Huang.

In fact, the parish’s Alpha program has also seen a notable increase in the past few years.

Father Huang believes bringing up the topic, even with those who aren’t inclined to be vocal about their beliefs or perhaps aren’t sure where they stand on life issues, helped parishioners to “wrestle” with the topic and analyze their motives for action or inaction. And that, he says, is a good thing.

“My dream is to do 40 Days for Life all 40 days. Just give us 35 more years.”

Parishioners from St. Anthony’s pray on the sidewalk near B.C. Women’s Hospital. (Photo by Jessica Dy Tang)