Planned Parenthood employees had seen many pro-life advocates outside their abortion clinic on Lake Otis Parkway in Anchorage. But in late August of 2015, two new figures appeared — a man and woman in unmistakably white medical coats, quietly praying the rosary with a larger group.
That Saturday, Dr. Mario Lanza, MD and Dr. Mary Lanza, MD, husband and wife, prayed in their professional attire. As Catholics, both had prayed the rosary in front of the clinic before — Mario with the Knights of Columbus, Mary with the Legion of Mary. But this time Mary felt called to do so in their medical coats.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to pray in front of the abortion clinic with my coat on. Would you like to join me?”
Mario admitted initial reluctance.
“I fought it up to the very last minute,” he said. “What do you want me to wear my coat for? What’s that got to do with it? Who cares?”
Yet duty called, and Mario followed.
MARRIAGE & MILITARY
In the mid 1980s, the Lanzas met and married while attending medical school in Maryland. Mario eventually went into family medicine while his wife became an anesthesiologist.
After graduating, the Lanzas were stationed in Illinois until the Gulf War in 1991. Mary was then assigned as a flight surgeon to serve the wounded and sick returning from the Middle East, while Mario completed his residency in family medicine. Several tours later, they arrived in Anchorage for their last station, Elmendorf Air Force Base, in 1994.
Upon completing military service, both Lanzas entered civilian practice in Anchorage.
PRACTICING CATHOLICS PRACTICING MEDICINE
After working with other family medicine doctors, Mario opened an Anchorage clinic, Alyeska Family Medicine, in 2006. Rather than compartmentalize his Catholic faith from professional life, Mario insists that family practice requires “integrity of person” — that is, knowledge of a patient’s spiritual, as well as physical and mental, background.
“I will look at that when the time seems appropriate, because that’s an important part for me to treat as a family physician,” he said. “I don’t just treat your arm or your heart; I treat the whole person and your whole family.”
Similarly, as an anesthesiologist at Providence Alaska Medical Center, Mary does not check her faith at the door.
“I pray with patients in the operating room, every day,” she said.
Her prayer? “Dear Lord Jesus, please just bless my hands, my mind, and my heart, so that I may do your will.”
Mary said her patients appreciate her approach.
“It gives great peace to patients to know that they have someone who cares for all aspects of their person: body, mind and spirit,” she observed. “It can be very mechanized in medicine today.”
In recent years, Mario and Mary became members of the Catholic Medical Association, the nation’s largest association of Catholic physicians and healthcare professionals. With Anchorage Archbishop Paul Etienne, they are working to establish an Alaska guild.
But their professional witness to the faith is not without difficulties. Mario’s business in particular has suffered from adhering to the Catholic Church’s teaching against artificial contraception.
When Alyeska Family Medicine was growing a few years ago, Mario needed additional help, and one doctor seemed a very good fit.
“At the end of the interview, I asked if she had any questions,” he said. “She said, ‘Do you have any room for negotiation on IUDs (intrauterine contraceptive devices)?’ I told her no, there’s no room for negotiation on that whatsoever. And that was it. She wouldn’t join us because she had to put in IUDs.”
SERVING THE CHURCH
Although the Lanzas do not have children of their own, both are very involved in the family life of the church.
Mario was a founding member of the Conquest youth ministry at St. Patrick Church in Anchorage, and also heads the altar server ministry there. Each summer he assists with Camp Kodiak, a two-week, high adventure Catholic summer camp. As an NRA-certified rifle and pistol instructor, he enjoys teaching young men the same skills he once honed as a member of the rifle team at St. Peter’s College in New Jersey.
God has used these ministries, particularly Camp Kodiak, to call him to the permanent diaconate. At the camp a few years ago, Mario said “God hit me over the head with a two-by-four and said, ‘I want you to be a deacon.’”
After spending a number of months discerning and praying privately, he decided to propose the idea to Mary.
“I’ve got my shields up, I’m waiting to hear all the practical reasons why I shouldn’t do this. Instead, she says, ‘What took you so long?’”
“God asked, and I said yes,” Mario added. “You follow in the footsteps of the Blessed Mother.”
He is now in training to become a deacon.
For her part, Mary is an active member of the Legion of Mary, and she assists with the linen ministry at St. Patrick’s.
She has also defended the sanctity of human life in the public square. In January 2016, she participated in a public debate at the Bear Tooth Theatre in Anchorage against Rep. Harriet Drummond, the West Anchorage lawmaker who introduced legislation to legalize physician-assisted suicide in Alaska.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that physician-assisted suicide “constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator.”
At the debate, Mary addressed the degrading effects of utilitarian philosophy on those who face death.
“They don’t feel like they’re of value anymore, they’re a burden on their family,” she told the Catholic Anchor. “They don’t want to be a financial burden, a daily activities-type burden.”
A catalyst for this attitude lies in the fact that people no longer witness death as a commonplace occurrence, Mary explained.
“Part of the debate was to encourage people to get out there, to sit with someone on their journey toward death,” she said. “That’s true compassion, that’s Christ, that’s walking with someone.”
PREACHING THE GOSPEL AT ALL TIMES
The Lanzas’ willingness to bring their faith into the public square stems from their belief about the need to evangelize.
“As witnesses to what we believe, what we profess, what we know in our hearts to be true, we need to be a visual statement for others,” Mary explained.
Mario added that following Christ means going forth to “preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth and to all creatures: not some of the time, not just on Sunday, not just in this building, but with every moment of your life.”