by Marc and Julie Anderson
WASHINGTON — It was a pilgrimage of firsts and of unity.
That’s how archdiocesan participants in this year’s national March for Life describe their trip to the nation’s capital.
This marked the first time Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, the new chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, was the main celebrant of the opening Mass of the National Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Jan. 18.
Before some 10,000 from across the nation, the archbishop took the pulpit for his homily and said — to much laughter — that he had often wondered what the view was like from up here.
Then, looking out over the crowd, he said it is “the most beautiful mosaic tonight we see in these pews.”
“Tonight,” he continued, “we gather to commemorate the 46th anniversary of the tragic twin Supreme Court decisions, Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton, that legalized abortion essentially for any reason through all nine months of pregnancy. As a result, since 1973, there are now 61 million innocent American children killed in the wombs of their mothers.”
He then went on to detail the many deceptions that had gone into the decisions that have led us to today.
Some, he said, are still going on. Critics of pro-life advocates criticize their opponents “for only caring about the unborn.”
The reality, he said, is that millions of people volunteer their time, talent and treasure in a variety of ways at thousands of pregnancy resource centers to support the unborn child and parents materially, financially, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.
“These centers of love,” he said, “are committed to accompanying the parents long after the birth of their child” and empower mothers and fathers to thrive for a lifetime.
“The pro-life ethic challenges us to care about the sacredness of every human being throughout life’s spectrum,” he said. “We’re called always and everywhere to promote the dignity of the human person. Protecting the lives of unborn children is the preeminent human rights issue of our time — not only because of the sheer magnitude of the numbers, but because abortion attacks the sanctuary of life: the family.”
At the root of Christ’s message, the archbishop said, was mercy.
“We read in the Gospel tonight about Christianity’s first deathbed conversion,” he said. “One of the prisoners crucified with Our Lord joins the crowd in mocking Jesus.
“The other, sometimes called the good thief or Dismas, makes a most beautiful profession of faith. The good thief recognizes in the brutally beaten and apparently defeated Jesus, the Lord of Life.
“Dismas makes a humble, but faith-filled request: ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus canonizes him on the spot, proclaiming, ‘This day you will be with me in Paradise.’”
“The Gospel is all about mercy,” continued Archbishop Naumann. “Our Lord’s mission is all about mercy. And we, his disciples, must also be about mercy.”
“As we pray tonight and as we march tomorrow,” he concluded, “let us pray that we can be effective witnesses for life, witnesses for love, witnesses for mercy.”
The next day, Archbishop Naumann then delivered the opening prayer for the rally held just prior to the march itself.
Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life, introduced the archbishop at the rally and thanked the marchers for coming to demonstrate against “the greatest human rights abuse of our time.”
Other speakers at the rally included the surprise addition of Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen, as well as a video call-in from President Donald Trump.
There were at least four new archdiocesan leaders marching for the first time this year. Debra Niesen became the archdiocese’s pro-life consultant within the past few months, and Ann Marie Alvey became the archdiocese’s Project Rachel director only six months ago.
Additionally, Shelly Buhler became Hayden High School’s president this past summer, and Father Carter Zielinski, the high school’s chaplain, is new not just to his appointment but also to the priesthood, having been ordained last June.
As she reflected on the archbishop’s homily, Niesen said she appreciated how the archbishop shared the deception involved in the 1973 Supreme Court decisions.
“Many might not have known about the deceit involved,” she said.
She also appreciated how the archbishop, in both his homily at the basilica and one at a Mass the next day for Kansas pilgrims, was “always circling back to God’s mercy” and love for the unborn but also for those involved in abortion.
Describing her entire experience as “a call to action,” Niesen said she was “just overwhelmed by the incredible witness of so many people,” and in particular, the young people, who gathered to give a voice to all those who have no voice, the unborn.
Like Niesen, Buhler was inspired by the presence of so many young people.
“It gets me very excited for next year,” she said.
As president of Topeka’s only Catholic high school, Buhler said it was “a very moving experience to represent Hayden and be there as a witness for life.”
By far, though, one of her favorite moments was hearing the archbishop’s words at the basilica.
“It was amazing to see the archbishop as celebrant,” she said, “and so beautiful to be with Catholics from all over the nation.”
Buhler said she’s very excited about next year’s March for Life pilgrimage and is already thinking about ways she, religion instructors, campus ministers and the chaplain can work together to send a large contingent from Hayden next year.
As chaplain, Father Zielinski said, his role is “to make our students intentional disciples of Jesus, faithful to the church.” Part of being faithful to the Catholic Church, he said, is “to encourage a culture of life in whatever way we can.”
Establishing a culture of life in today’s society is something that Burk Schreiner, a senior at St. James Academy in Lenexa, plans to be more intentional about as a result of having made the pilgrimage. One way is just in talking with people about the reality of abortion whenever an opportunity affords him a chance to speak with people one-on-one.
“The truth speaks for itself,” he said.
He plans to “just present the facts” surrounding abortion and let God handle the rest.
“I think that’s the most effective way,” he added.