March for Life: A heart-warming day in snowbound Washington

Snow covers the hat of a priest pictured outside the Supreme Court during the March for Life (AP)

After my third March for Life in Washington DC, I arrived home to the rectory this evening frozen through, but with a heart full of joy and of hope. Despite the threats of an impending and apocalyptic blizzard, empty shelves in the supermarkets this morning, and countless dioceses cancelling their annual trip to the nation’s capital, around 100,000 people still turned out in the snow and cold — an impressive sight that once more failed to garner the coverage it is due on the nightly news, and seemed to pass a number of presidential hopefuls by.

The March for Life, which falls each year on January 22 to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision, Roe vs Wade, is an amazing event unlike anything Catholics in the UK can really imagine. It is a pro-life rally, and we know those for sure; but it is almost on the scale of World Youth Day. This year, with all the weather constraints, twice the number of people came to the march than attended Cardinal Newman’s beatification in 2010. And this happens every year.

As people arrive in DC the night before, a vigil is held in the imposing Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Like every other event connected to the march, it is a standing-room only affair. Cardinals, bishops, priests, and seminarians throng the nave for a full twenty-five minutes before the celebrant (Cardinal Dolan, this year) begins, “In the Name of the Father…” And thousands of young people are there, from across the United States, to join their bishops in public prayer for the legal protection of the unborn.

The sight cannot fail to stir the soul. But it is only the beginning. On the day of the march, large arenas usually used for football (the real sort) and hockey (the ice sort) are filled for Mass, and these days not a few dioceses also have their own celebrations. In the evening, after the march is over, a Solemn Mass is offered in the Extraordinary Form to honour the founder of the March for Life, Nellie Gray, who was also a lifelong devotee of the traditional liturgy.

A group of bagpipers salute during the March for Life (AP)
A group of bagpipers salute during the March for Life (AP)

And after a morning of prayer comes the march itself. A procession, twenty people wide, walking and singing, moves down the National Mall, past the buildings of state and the offices of the Capitol, and up toward the Supreme Court. Even with the reduced numbers and snow this year, it took forty-five minutes to pass by that great symbol of American justice. Banners, flags, and singing – even bagpipes! – all proclaimed a unified, clear, and unequivocal message: these young people will not accept the idea that a baby can be legally killed in its mother’s womb.

As I thaw out and look to see the snow from my study window, now falling really quite heavily (it was surely providence that let us march before this really began), I continue to be impressed by the witness of Americans (Catholics primarily, but others too) against the unspeakable crime of abortion.

This is a live issue here. It occupies talkshows and politics; it already features as a significant part of the forthcoming primaries and presidential race. To those of us who have reluctantly accepted the ‘status quo’ in Britain and elsewhere — or, perhaps not so much accepted it, but come to see that our witness is more principled than practical — this is all an encouragement. It is a reminder that if we do speak up, and do work to bring this issue back to the table, it is a message on which the general public can be engaged.

The first step is at home; with ourselves and our own Catholic communities. We have seen an increase in Catholic pro-life witness, especially in our cities, but we can also elicit change with our votes and our cash. No politician or party that supports for abortion should get the vote of a Catholic. No policy that undermines the inalienable dignity of every human life, from conception to natural death, should be given quarter. No coffee chain or charity that makes a negative stance on this issue (and it is a stance when all we want is a cappuccino from them) should be patronised or supported.

Generations before us faced their great trial in war, and more recently in a culture of death marked by an anti-life and anti-family agenda. We have the chance to turn that all around and to promote a culture of life; to be the pro-life generation in Britain that we see so boldly on the streets of the US. May we have the courage and conviction to get on and do it.