Sitting in the courtyard of the St. Joseph Cathedral in downtown Wheeling, appropriately near the statue of St. Joseph our patron saint of fathers, Mark Witzberger, shared how each one of us is called to put our faith in action.
Witzberger and his wife Barbara are the parents of two grown children, Melissa and Jason. He grew up in Immaculate Conception-St. Mary’s Parish in South Wheeling, attended St. Mary’s Grade School, Our Lady of Peace Grade School, and graduated from Bishop Donahue. It is obvious he cherishes his faith, which is not only visible by his unassuming reverent presence at Mass, but also his resolve to help those in need, especially in regards to respecting human life.
“As a teacher and coach, for years I worked with projects which concentrate on respecting life,” Witzberger, now retired, said. “However, I never made the time to get involved in any sort of Pro-Life ministry at church until now.”
Just like St. Joseph a compassionate protector, hard worker, and guardian, Witzberger’s career put him in a position to help countless students, serving as the faculty coordinator for Cameron High School’s Student Against Destructive Decisions organization. Through coaching he encouraged his players not only be committed to improving as athletes, but also as positive leaders in their peer groups and community.
Since his retirement a few years ago, Witzberger wanted to get his parish more involved in a Pro-Life/Respect Life ministry.
He attended Respect Life conferences in the Diocese of Steubenville at Franciscan University. He has been in contact with the Archdiocese of Baltimore, several parishes around Maryland, and has contacted fellow Catholics around West Virginia like Denny and Gretchen Wilson who are part of the Pro-Life ministry at St. Michael Parish in Wheeling.
“Saying ‘I’m Pro-Life, end of story’ is not enough,” Witzberger said. “We need to be do-ers.”
Through the mighty strength of education and prayer, he hopes to make a significant difference and encourage others to put their faith in acation.
Last year he approached Our Lady of Peace Pastor Rev. Joseph Mandokkara Augustine with the idea of starting an official Pro-Life ministry within the parish. A small survey was taken at weekend Masses to identify parishioner interest. With the help of fellow parishioners, Bill Pack and Steve Roth, the men began a Spiritual Adoption program, committed to provide awareness information in the parish bulletin, distributed Pro-Life bracelets, and handed out special Spiritual Adoption infant ornaments at Christmas.
“We need to be a support system, not just a people who stand against abortion,” he said. “We need to take care of expectant mothers then help once they have the child. We need to take care of the elderly, the homeless, the impoverished, the hurting…. That’s what Pro-Life should be.”
There are programs out there all over the state for those facing unexpected or unwanted pregnancies, but even in the present time we are not widely talked about or known, Witzberger said.
“It’s our job to help get information out so these young women know they have support and are not alone.” He said. “There are groups throughout West Virginia like Wellspring Pregnancy Center in Moundsville, that offers a 20-hour training and once completed the mother-to-be earns a crib that turns into a toddler bed. The Gabriel Project helps women and their children from birth to pre-school with supplies, and emotional and financial support. Rachel’s Vineyard, which is available across the country, helps women heal from the traumatic wound of abortion; and The Crittenton Services that provide residential care for girls and young women, specialized for those who are pregnant and or parenting.
“We may have heard of these organizations, but do we really know what they do? Do we support them with donations of supplies or monetary support? Learning about these organizations and sharing what we’ve learned can help our mission to protect the unborn. We need to be educated not just say we are against abortion,” he said. “We need to show we care and be a support through a pregnancy or God forbid an abortion. Our God is all merciful. He is a loving forgiving God. We need to share that message and show these young ladies there is a support system. They are scared. They are living in fear. They think they are in a helpless, hopeless situation.”
Witzberger said to become involved in the ministry does not take a big commitment of time and legwork.
“We can all find excuses why not to get involved,” he said. “However, if we can concentrate on prayer and education as a faithful community that’s a huge step in the right direction.”
At Our Lady of Peace, the Spiritual Adoption Program has taken up the most time, but that was just the time it took to create and print up cards for the parishioner participants. Through the program the congregation prays on its own for the unborn, expectant mothers, those who have had miscarriages, and those whose babies were still born. The Spiritual Adoption prayer card includes the prayer:
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I love you very much. I beg you to protect each baby in its mother’s womb, especially (choose a name for a baby you will pray for), whom I have spiritually adopted. Please, give the parents of these children the help they need to keep their babies strong and healthy. Amen.”
Witzberger’s dedication is a great example of what St. Therese of Lisieux was referring to, when she said, “Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them.”
Witzberger’s compassion is undeniable.
“We need to work and pray together,” he said. “And I really believe we can save lives.”