Beep Beep Beep. Beep Beep Beep.
The sound of my alarm going off at 5:00 a.m. on a bitterly cold Virginia morning was not the most welcome sound in the world. I won an epic battle with myself not to hit the “snooze” button as I began turning on lights and shaking roommates’ shoulders. We needed to be dressed, packed, checked out of our hotel and boarding buses for downtown D.C. within the hour. It was time to get ready for what would turn out to be a truly inspiring day for our country.
Today was January 22, 2008, the 35th Anniversary of the darkest day in American history: the day our country chose to legalize the killing of its own children. I had traveled to Washington, D.C., two days earlier, along with exactly one hundred college students from Charlotte, North Carolina. During these three days and two nights of pilgrimage for the National March for Life, we were encouraged, motivated, and challenged by what we saw and experienced. Our journey made us better Christians and more faithful soldiers in the battle for life. We came to inspire our nation, and left having been deeply inspired ourselves.
This is our story.
The Journey Begins
“As we take off I’d like to share a brief reflection for our trip” a sophomore spoke into the bus’ microphone. Three buses full of students and baggage were pulling out of the campus parking lot. Katie stood up and gave a brief challenge to her peers as student leaders went up and down the aisle passing out juice and Danishes for an on-the-go breakfast.
“I was praying out this trip to the March for Life, and talking about it with a friend, and my friend reminded me that our prayer for this trip should be that this is the last time we will ever have to make a trip to Washington D.C. for the March for Life. It really struck me because I had never thought about it like that before. So I want to challenge all of you to be praying, and offering your sacrifices this weekend for the intention that THIS will be the year that Roe vs. Wade is reversed in our country.”
I was struck by the fact that these students really understood the urgency of why they were making this trip to D.C. Sure, some students signed up for the excitement of a road trip, the sightseeing opportunities, or an excuse to get away from two days of classes. But the majority of the college students I encountered on this trip took this pilgrimage to the March for Life very seriously. They understood that over 50,000,000 babies had died in our land since 1973. They were aware that over one third of their generation was missing because of abortion. And they believed that it was their responsibility to stand up and let their voices be heard on behalf of the unborn.
We arrived in D.C. at the end of our seven hour bus trip. After checking into the hotel, the students gathered in a conference room for dinner and to review our itinerary for our time in Washington. We were joined by several other college students who had arrived in D.C. a few days earlier to attend the annual Students for Life of America Conference, held at Catholic University of America. I asked some of these students for their feedback on the conference.
“I expected to learn many new things, but I was not prepared to be utterly blown away by the conference,” said Ally, a college junior. “We learned so many ways that we can bring the pro-life message back to our campus. Not only were the seminars amazing, but what we learned from talking with students at other campuses was invaluable. We are definitely fired up to go back to our campus and ignite more passion for the pro-life message.”
Monday on The Mall
Monday morning was our “free time” to explore historic monuments, museums, and federal buildings in our nation’s capitol. Tens of thousands of college students had already converged on D.C. by Monday morning, as was evident from the many tourists we encountered who, like our group, were wearing their pro-life sweatshirts, beanies, pins, and buttons, with pro-life stickers tattooed to their coats and backpacks. Even during their free time, students took the opportunity to be a pro-life witness in Washington. One student in our group befriended a Washington lobbyist in the cafeteria line in the basement of the National Art Museum. “I told her [the lobbyist] that I was here with hundreds of other pro-life young people because we wanted to let lobbyists like her know that we have an opinion about abortion, and that she has a responsibility to represent our voices too. I told her to look out her office window tomorrow and watch us march to the Supreme Court. She said that until I talked with her, she had no idea that tomorrow was the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade.”
Later in the day, some of our group were touring a federal building, and a security guard told one of the young men that he needed to remove his pro-life sweatshirt because “messages like that are too strong and disrespectful attire for a federal building.” Thankfully, the student knew his rights to wear the sweatshirt, and nothing untoward happened between them. The student told me later how ironic it was that “we can kill babies in our country but we can’t wear a pro-life sweatshirt inside a federal building.”
The National Vigil for Life Begins
We thought our plan to arrive at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception by 4:00pm (for a 7:00pm Mass) was brilliant. “At least we’ll be sure to get seats if we go this early,” one of our group leaders assured us.
You can imagine our surprise when our buses pulled up to the Basilica to find a parking lot already full to capacity of cars and tour buses, and people swarming both inside and outside this beautiful Shrine. Since seats for one hundred people were certainly not still available, we split into smaller groups to find a square foot of floor space between aisles and walkways where we could claim a spot to participate in the Mass. Two friends and I found a spot towards the front left side of the upper Church, and we stood there for nearly three hours to save the spot.
I have attended the National March for Life many times over the years, and each trip included attending the Mass for Life at the National Shrine. Never in all those years have I ever seen such a massive crowd at the Basilica. There were so many faithful packed into the Shrine that once you found a spot where you were not squashing anyone else, you stood as still as possible for the remainder of the evening. Not only was the Upper Church (and all the side chapels) packed and over-packed to capacity, but the Lower (Crypt) Church was also overflowing, as the faithful watched the service on big screen monitors.
The Vigil Mass for Life was glorious. The entrance procession of seminarians, deacons, priests, bishops, and archbishops was truly breathtaking. It took precisely thirty-one minutes (I timed it) for all the clergy to process to the altar – truly an amazing sight to behold.
The Vigil Mass was presided over by Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia. In his homily, Cardinal Rigali reminded the faithful that each of us, great and small, has a role to play in this great fight for life. Reflecting on the life of St. Agnes, whose feast was celebrated that day, Cardinal Rigali challenged us:
“Instead of choosing 'great' or impressive people in the eyes of the world, God uses the humble, the foolish, the weak and 'those who count for nothing' to accomplish his purposes. It is when we least expect it that the tiniest among us can humble the powerful.”
1.22.08 – Dawn
Back to where I left off with my alarm clock ringing on the morning of January 22nd: we had the smoothest hotel checkout of 100 college students you’ve ever seen. We watched the sun rise on Washington D.C. from our seats on the buses, as our drivers took us to the Verizon Center in downtown D.C. for the youth rally and Mass that would take place there all morning.
As we found seats inside the Verizon Center, Catholic recording artists Matt Maher and Steve Angrisano were already beginning their concert. The morning included brief testimonies and speeches intermixed with the concert. A special greeting was read from President George Bush. As the Verizon Center filled to capacity and overflowing with young people, the convention center looked like a sea of bright colors (each state and campus wore matching shirts, scarves or beanies, so as you looked out on a crowd of over 25,000 young people, you truly did see a rainbow.
Mass with Three Dozen Bishops and 25,000 of Our Closest Friends
Mass began at 10:30am, presided by the Archbishop of Washington, Donald Wuerl. Like the Vigil Mass the night before, the opening procession included a massive number of seminarians, priests, and bishops. In his opening greeting to the youth and young adults present, Archbishop Wuerl asked each bishop and archbishop to stand and be recognized. As each bishop was introduced, the young people from that diocese clapped and screamed loudly for their shepherd. Because Maryland was sitting closest to the altar and stage, Bishop O’Brien of Baltimore at least tied for the loudest yells (Franciscan University of Steubenville, all the way across the room, did a pretty good job of tying for the loudest applause for Bishop Conlon of Steubenville).
Pope Benedict XVI Speaks to Us
Also at the beginning of mass, the young people received a truly special gift. Pope Benedict XVI had sent the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, to join us at the Verizon Center for Mass and to read a special message that Pope Benedict had written, specifically to the youth at the Verizon Center.
Pope Benedict’s message included the following:
“His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI asks you kindly to convey his cordial greetings to the thousands of young people from throughout the United States who will gather on January 22 for the annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life held in conjunction with the National March for Life. The Holy Father sees a radiant sign of hope for the future in this yearly witness to the Gospel of Life. He is deeply grateful for the commitment of so many young Americans to promoting respect for the dignity and inalienable rights of every human being, including the smallest and most defenseless members of our human family. As His Holiness looks forward to his visit to the United States in April, he assures the young people of his affection and his solidarity in prayer. Commending all of them to the loving intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church, he willingly imparts his apostolic blessing as a pledge of joy and peace in the Lord. Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary of State.”
After Mass, all of the young people in our group agreed: getting up at 5am to hear a personal message from the Pope was definitely worth it.
Marching As One
"We love babies, yes we do. We love babies, how ‘bout YOU?” screamed one hundred college students from Belmont Abby College, as they made their way down 7th Street to the Mall on Constitution Avenue.
On the opposite side of the sidewalk, at least as many students from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana answered the chant back. As the two schools crossed over a footbridge, dozens of police officers and pedestrians stopped to watch these two schools pump each other up for the March.
The rally on the Mall and the March itself were absolutely amazing. Some experts reported that there were as many as 200,000 people in attendance. Priests and nuns in their habits. Moms and Dads with a passel of young kids, pushing strollers. Elderly folks in wheel chairs or with canes. The women of “Silent No More” and other organizations who carried signs telling the world they regretted their abortion. College and university students as far as your eye could see, from all corners of the country. Every race, denomination, demographic, all gathered together for a common cause, with the same prayer in their hearts … the same prayer of the sophomore student on the bus three days and two nights earlier … that this would be the last time we would be here in Washington D.C. for the March for Life.
For pictures and videos of the 2008 March for Life, visit Stephanie’s 4Marks Folio .
Stephanie Wood is the coordinator of NextWave Faithful, a young adult division of Family Life Center International that seeks to motivate, equip, and encourage young adults during their “transition years” to live faithful lives for Jesus Christ and His Church. She is the host of “NextWave Live” on the EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network, and is a frequent speaker and writer on topics relating to Catholicism and young adult life. Stephanie can be reached at email@example.com.
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