There’s a prayerful presence on Parliament Hill these cold winter days, in the presence of Father Anthony Van Hee, a 54-year-old Jesuit priest from Guelph, Ontario.
Outside the Parliament buildings, directly opposite the entrance to the House of Commons, Father Van Hee fasts and prays publicly. Here, alone or with a companion or a few supporters, he comes every day to remind the Prime Minister, Members of Parliament and the public about the fatally-flawed abortion legislation now under study by a parliamentary committee. He represents the pro-life conscience of the nation and stands for all pro-lifers unable to join him. He represents the lament of a nation should this legislation pass.
Father Van Hee began his long fast on September 24, 1989, when Parliament reconvened for the fall session, and continued it until Parliament recessed on December 22, 1989. He fasted for 91 days – 51 days without food (with water only and an electrolyte solution to prevent dehydration) and 40 days with some bread and weak tea to sustain him. Over the Christmas recess, back at the Jesuit seminary in Guelph, he broke his fast to regain weight (he lost 30 pounds) and to rebuild his stamina.
But now he’s “back at work,” fasting on the Hill. He began January 22, 1990, when the MPs went back to work. During this winter session he’ll be alternating “fast weeks” with Joe Bissonnette, a 25-year-old pro-life activist from Toronto. Each will be his brother’s keeper when the other fasts, and will attend to duties (media, inquiries and appointments with MPs) that otherwise tax the energy of the one fasting. Van Hee, on temporary leave from his retreat work, and Joe, a Scarborough, Ontario supply teacher, will continue their fast until the abortion Bill C-43 is dealt with.
Anthony Van Hee was born in Saskatchewan, the youngest of nine children. The family moved to Ontario when he was three. His American-born father (of German background) and his Canadian mother (also of German background) were both deeply religious. Of his childhood, he recalls, “We were poor but we didn’t lack for anything.” In Ontario, his father worked on tobacco farms or in factories to provide for his large family. He died last year. Meanwhile, his bright, active mother still keeps track of him. She reminded him over Christmas to “be careful with the fasting.”
Always a good student, Father Van Hee finished high school at age 17 and went to work in a printing factory. He had, he thought, his life mapped out. He would study medicine, get married and settle down as a doctor. That year, however, Sister Mary – his older sister and a teaching nun with the Loretto Sisters – sent him a brochure on the Jesuits. He looked it over with interest. Before long he had made a new decision – he would enter the priesthood.
During Father Van Hee’s long training of fourteen years, including classical studies, philosophy, theology and four years of teaching high school, he had his human struggles. Several times he thought of transferring to a more contemplative order because he thought he was more suited to that life, even though Jesuits are called “to be contemplatives in action.” Just before ordination, his wise spiritual director asked him, “How much do you want to be a priest? Ask Sister Mary to pray for you.” This she did and he was ordained in 1968.
After ordination, he worked among native Canadians in northern Ontario for almost two years – a happy time indeed. Some years later he began to give spiritual direction and retreats to religious and lay people and found the balance between contemplation and action he had been seeking.
Call to action
For years Father Van Hee had been reading about pro-life activity, and occasionally thinking he ought to get involved but doing nothing about it. Then, in the May 1989 issue of The Interim, he read about a Pro-Life Clergy Rally to be held in downtown Toronto (June 24, 1989). He attended the march, picking up an “Operation Rescue” video which reminded him of his own civil rights involvement.
In 1971, he and other Jesuits worked one summer in the Chicago ghettos for better housing conditions for the poor. Their strategy resembled the strategy now being used by Operation Rescue to protest the injustice of abortion. He liked what he saw and received permission from his Superior to join.
In August 1989, he and 125 others blocked the entrance to the Scott abortuary to close it for the day. Of the experience Father recalls, “It was transforming, like being in a renewal, meeting all those people caught up in the same visible cause.” He was arrested and spent the day in jail. At the police station, he met Joe Bissonnette and Kurt Gayle, the two who were to be co-organizers of the fast. They became friends and would meet again.
Trim and healthy-looking in appearance, Father Van Hee in his navy suit could easily pass for a “Bay Street banker” except for his Roman collar. He is friendly and pleasant in conversation, but uninterested in talking about himself except to admit that he’s a “pack rat” and loves all sports.
Thoughts and ideas are more to his liking. “Christianity,” he points out, “is a paradox. We are saved by the Cross, which is at odds with secular wisdom.” In the same way, St. Paul recalls how God “used the weak to confound the strong and the ignorant to confound the wise.” These are not exactly the thoughts that help one get ahead on Toronto’s Bay Street.
Two fasting companions talk about him easily Kurt Gayle, 45, is a co-founder of Operation Rescue Toronto and Joe Bissonnette is a pro-life activist from Toronto. Kurt met Van Hee last September after the latter responded to his appeal for people to join the “Fast for Life.” At that time Kurt told him that more pro-lifers were willing to go to jail for the preborn than to fast so Father Van Hee volunteered to fast. Together they launched the public project when Parliament opened on September 25. They became friends and stayed at the same retreat house at night, often sharing “belly laughs” about the day’s events. Father has had insomnia since adolescence and sometimes sleeps only three hours a night. Yet, if he is tired the next day, he never complains.
Kurt believes that fasting grew naturally out of Father’s concern for the preborn yet “he’s surprised that people think it’s so special.” In fact, during their days together (Kurt had to come home after 28 days), people kept coming on the Hill concerned about his welfare. Finally he said to Kurt, “Isn’t there something we can do about this? It’s driving me crazy.”
Joe Bissonnette joined up as a supporter and helper two weeks into the fast. He describes Father as a shy, serious, scholarly person. In manner, he has a quiet strength and is an excellent listener. People seem drawn to him. Although it is taxing for him to talk when he is fasting, he is always congenial. He has earned “a lot of respect from people who stop by.” Prime Minister Mulroney has stopped three times and urged Father “to take care of yourself.” Some four dozen MPs (he’s kept track of their names) have spoken to him, most of them pro-life but also some who are not.
Father Van Hee says the idea of the public fast is meant to be a reminder to Parliament of the pro-life presence. He believes that “they need lots of prayers on the Hill.” His own reason for fasting is to do personal penance in reparation for all who are involved in abortion. He quotes Mother Teresa in noting that we’re not commanded to be successful but to be faithful. He sees abortion in the wider context as a spiritual struggle. Father shares Kurt Gayle’s vision that fasting is a way of calling attention to the steadfast dedication of pro-life people. He downplays his own involvement. “It’s not a heroic act for me,” he said, “because I have knowledge and experience of fasting. He fasted for 33 days in 1983 and for 46 days in 1984 – both extensions of his Lenten fast.
Twenty years late
About going public, he says, “I felt a call to do something. I’m twenty years too late. Besides I’m part of the public.” He believes the moment is urgent because we have a rare opportunity to influence pro-life legislation and that time is limited. We must do all we can now.
The fasters usually go to the Hill at 9:00 a.m. and stay until 3:30 p.m. or longer when the days are brighter. “I usually face the Parliament buildings,” Father states, “and ‘pray up the building’ for all that goes on inside, for the Prime Minister, the MPs and their staff.” He is firmly convinced that if the proposed legislation is passed, it will indicate a lack of moral and spiritual depth in our nation and will lead to more secular humanism and materialism. He dearly wishes the media would not call the fast “a hunger strike” but what it is, “A Fast for Life.”
One of the hardships on the Hill is the open exposure to the elements – wind, rain, snow and cold. Still Father bundles up and refuses to take shelter. He walks or sits on a cement abutment, carrying a cellular phone and a Rosary.
On October 27, two RCMP constables, on order from an RCMP inspector who was acting at the request of the Sergeant of Arms, tried to remove Father and his supporters to a lower sidewalk. Five MPs were particularly helpful in getting the order withdrawn. They were Don Boudria, Roger Simmons, David Kilgour, Ethel Blondin and Lawrence MacAuley.
Father Van Hee feels he is only a “bit player” in the fast and credits Kurt, Joe and Campaign Life Coalition for organizing the project. He is grateful for the kindnesses shown by pro-lifers: for their prayers, fasting, phone calls, letters (most cannot be answered), clothing, car loan and transportation. He is especially grateful to God for this opportunity to fast for pre-born Canadians.
To join the “Fast for Life” away from Parliament Hill, especially during Lent, Father Van Hee suggests, “Fast in the way you can, at home or at work for an hour or for a few hours. Skip a meal or make up your own fast or perhaps do without a special treat.”
A special time to fast, if possible, is on Wednesdays between 10:30 a.m. and 12:15 noon when the political parties meet in caucus to discuss important issues and plan strategy for the next week. Fasting can be done on weekends, too. Father and Joe each keep their fast for seven days, and go to the Hill on weekends for two hours around lunchtime. Speaking for himself, Father Van Hee says, “It is a privilege, a blessing, a consolation and a gift to do this fast.”
Bless you, Father, for illuminating the darkness on Parliament Hill.