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CONVENTION '04

Abortion debate won't keep priest from national stage

Make no mistake: The Rev. John B. Ardis, the Catholic priest whom Senator John F. Kerry has chosen to give the benediction at tonight's closing session of the convention, opposes abortion.

But he also opposes capital punishment, the war in Iraq, and public policies he views as unjust toward the poor or hungry.

Although several Catholic cardinals have declined to speak at Democratic conventions because of the party's support for abortion rights, Ardis, the director of the Paulist Center of Boston, will speak tonight without reservation, noting that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are fully in step with Catholic teachings.

"My goal is to bring the convention to a close in prayer and to challenge not only the candidates, but all of us to our responsibility as citizens," said Ardis, 49.

Kerry, who is the first Catholic nominated for president by a major party since John F. Kennedy in 1960, has worshiped regularly at the Paulist Center with his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, since the couple moved to Louisburg Square, a few blocks away, in 1996.

"I was invited as his local pastor to bring God's blessing," Ardis said. "I was extremely honored and flattered to be asked."

Ardis said he did not seek permission to speak at the convention, but that he did inform Archbishop Sean P. O'Malley of Boston, as well as the president of the Paulist Fathers, a religious order of priests with an emphasis on the evangelization of America, that he had accepted the invitation.

Ardis said a Kerry aide called him a week ago, asking him to deliver an invocation on the closing night; two days ago he was switched to the benediction, a three-minute closing prayer that he is scheduled to deliver about 11 p.m., after Kerry accepts the nomination.

Ardis has e-mailed Paulist priests around the country seeking input, and also has studied the invocation given by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles at the 2000 Democratic convention. Mahony was criticized by some abortion opponents for addressing the convention; cardinals Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago and John J. O'Connor of New York previously had declined invitations to speak at Democratic conventions.

Ardis said he expects to allude to the abortion issue with a call to "respect for life in all of its forms." But he said the party's position does not preclude a Catholic priest from offering a prayer.

"Neither party holds to a consistent ethic of life," Ardis said. "The bishops and the Holy Father have been outspoken about the war and about the death penalty, and yet my sense is that there will be people that will be invoking God's name at the Republican National Convention in another month."

Speaking at the convention is not Ardis's first bold move. In April, just before Easter, Ardis said he would welcome Kerry to Communion, despite declarations by some bishops that they would deny Kerry the sacrament because of his support for abortion rights. Ardis instead cited the position of other bishops, including O'Malley, that individual Catholics should examine their consciences to decide whether to seek Communion.

"We will not deny Communion to anyone who presents themselves in a respectful manner," Ardis said.

A native of Ionia, Mich., Ardis has headed the Paulist Center for six years. The center, on Park Street down the hill from the State House, draws 800 to 1,200 people for worship each weekend. It says it is one of the earliest Catholic houses of worship to welcome divorced members. The congregation welcomes gays and lesbians, emphasizes leadership for women, and has attracted many Catholics alienated from parish churches by issues such as the clergy abuse scandal.

Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

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