WASHINGTON, D.C. — As they have for 38 years, the pro-life movement gathered in force in the nation’s capitol on Monday for the March for Life, protesting the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the country. A crowd estimated between 100,000 and 200,000 contended with a water main break on the Beltway and below freezing temperatures to demonstrate their support for a culture of life.
While the march was the primary event, there were also many other conferences, prayer vigils, Masses and rallies designed to complement the March for Life’s goals. Father Frank Pavone, director of Priests for Life, compared the march, though it is a nonsectarian, nonpartisan event, to “a Catholic Super Bowl.”
At a Sunday afternoon Mass for pro-life leaders, and then again later at the National Prayer Vigil for Life opening Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, spoke of Christ as the “light that illumines the darkness” and of the importance of unity among those working to promote and support life.
“This is America at its best,” said Sam Vasquez, an intern with the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
Youth from around the country filled the basilica for the vigil, with some groups taking positions in the pews as early as noon for a Mass that didn’t begin until 6:30pm. By 3pm the upper church was nearly filled. Jacquelyn Hayes, director of communications for the National Shrine, estimated that there were more than 11,000 present for the Mass, including five cardinals, 41 bishops, 325 priests, 95 deacons, 570 seminarians and 65 servers.
Many youth commented on the powerful witness of seeing so many other young people supporting life.
“It’s touching to see how many people are against abortion,” said Hannah Jackson, 14, who spent 18 hours traveling on a bus from Jerseyville, Ill., to attend the events.
“We’re just one youth group,” said Hunter Bryant, 13, also from Jerseyville. “It’s amazing to see how many people believe the same thing that we do.”
Kevin Kehoe, 13, traveled with his sister, brother, two cousins and eight busloads of people from the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., to take part.
“Hopefully, the march will make politicians realize the importance of saving innocent lives,” said Kehoe. “The unborn are future lives that could change society and the world.”
Cardinal DiNardo encouraged such participants in the annual gathering.
“You have been, have become and remain the genuine leaders and pioneers of this March for Life and this vigil Liturgy,” he said during his homily. “To the astonishment of nature, of the chattering classes and of disinterested and jaded media, you have continuously come forward here and throughout the places where you live to be unflagging witnesses to the inestimable worth of each human person.”
Following the Mass, confessions were heard for more than two hours, a National Rosary for Life was prayed and seminarians from around the country led Holy Hours of Eucharistic adoration in the crypt church from midnight until morning.
Because of overwhelming demand to attend the Monday morning Youth Rally and Mass, for the first time the Archdiocese of Washington added a second arena site. In addition to the morning rally of nearly 18,000 that filled the Verizon Center, nearly 10,000 additional teens gathered at the D.C. Armory.
While the Archdiocese of Washington’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl celebrated the Verizon Center Mass, Cardinal DiNardo celebrated the Mass at the Armory. Six additional Masses were also held at four other overflow sites at Immaculate Conception, St. Patrick, St. Stephen Martyr and St. Mary, Mother of God churches.
“How beautiful when so many younger brothers and sisters gather together,” said Archbishop Pietro Sambi, apostolic nuncio to the United States, to sustained cheering from the crowd. “I become younger and younger with you.” Archbishop Sambi shared a letter from Pope Benedict XVI with those gathered.
Tide Has Turned
“The march shows the relationship between being a Catholic and being a citizen, and that those aren’t exclusive to one other,” said Father Aaron Kuhn, a priest of the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., studying canon law at The Catholic University of America, and who was participating in his first march. “As Catholic Americans we have a duty to be involved with our faith and the civil realm.”
While President Barack Obama marked the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision by reaffirming his support for legalized abortion, many of the pro-life leaders and speakers spoke of the cultural shift that’s taking place.
“I am committed to protecting this constitutional right,” Obama said in a statement, saying that the 1973 Supreme Court ruling “affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters.”
At a Mass for pro-life leaders and the opening Mass for the prayer vigil, Cardinal DiNardo expressed hope that recent congressional changes might bring about pro-life legislative change. He pointed to two new legislative efforts — the Abortion Non-Discrimination Act, which reaffirms that no health-care entity should be forced by the government to perform or participate in abortions, and another bill that would permanently codify the policy of the Hyde Amendment, so that no taxpayer money would be used to promote or support abortions in the U.S. or abroad.
Cardinal DiNardo’s comments were echoed by many politicians and attendees at the rally on the National Mall and at the march to the Supreme Court afterwards.
“We are here because Roe v. Wade is bad law. We are here because we believe it was wrongly decided,” Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., told those gathered at the rally. “We believe Roe v. Wade has led to a three-and-a-half decades-long holocaust in the United States of America, and it amounts to a stain on our national conscience, and it’s time for it to end.”
Attendees appeared energized by the results of November’s elections and the fact that a majority of Americans describe themselves as pro-life.
“We’ve already passed more than 50% who are against abortion,” said Cathy Lawler from Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, who attended the march with a group of about 40 others from Burlington, N.C. “There’s hope. The people are already there. The tide has turned. I want to see Roe v. Wade overturned in my lifetime.”
Richard McGill, of Elmira Heights, N.Y., has been attending the March for Life since the beginning. He described the changes he has seen over the past 38 years.
“There’s been a dramatic change the last few years,” he said. “Try to find the old-timers. It’s mostly young people now.”
McGill said that gives him a tremendous amount of hope.
“Something is going to change sometime,” he said. “You can see it in the young people, and you can feel it in your bones.”
Register senior writer Tim Drake filed this story from Washington, D.C.