Mae Cross was basking in the hope and fellowship of this year’s March for Life in Washington, D.C., when she caught sight of a man with a sign:
“To the mothers of all four of my adopted children, thank you for choosing life.”
Miss Cross, a senior at Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, and her younger brother were both adopted.
She and her best friend, Emily Konrad, stopped and talked to the man.
“He was very kind,” said Miss Cross. “I’m very grateful to my birth mom, too, and to my brother’s. It meant a lot to be able to talk to someone who understands that.”
They were two of several hundred thousand — 290 from the Jefferson City diocese — who converged in the nation’s capital Jan. 24 for the 47th annual March for Life.
The peaceful, prayerful gathering marks the anniversary of the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decisions that legalized abortion-on-demand through all nine months of pregnancy, throughout the United States.
Since then, an estimated 61 million lives have been lost to abortion in this country.
The theme for this year’s March, a nod to the 100th anniversary of women in the United States gaining the right to vote, was “Life Empowers: Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman.”
“One of the things about the pro-life movement is that we really, really reinforce the idea that you can be the most pro-women when you are pro-life,” said Miss Konrad, a Tolton Catholic senior attending her second March for Life.
She said the March was a microcosm of the kind of society the marchers hope to help create.
“It’s such a positive, loving atmosphere here,” she said. “We’re all about love and making sure everyone feels that love.”
She said a truly pro-life society would be filled with “extremely positive people who are pro-woman, pro-children, pro-family, pro-everyone.”
Tolton Catholic senior Ashley Kippes was attending her fifth March for Life.
“The Pro-Life Generation is winning the fight against abortion,” said Miss Kippes, president of her school’s pro-life club.
It’s less of a victory of party or public policy than an emerging triumph of compassion and awareness.
“It’s the little things you do in your daily life,” she said. “Being kind to someone — you don’t know what they might be going through. Being open to helping women who are in crisis who need us — that’s an example of putting your pro-life views into practice.”
She believes the truth itself is a powerful witness.
“I believe every person has a chance,” she stated. “Science tells us that from the moment of conception, you have a separate, unique, new life. By Day 6, you have a heartbeat.”
“It starts here”
Tolton Catholic senior Silas Glaude was on his fourth March for Life.
It concerns him when people say that since he can’t get pregnant, he has no say in the abortion debate.
“If I were not to exercise my right to speak out in defense of the right to life that’s integral to anyone and everyone, I would be doing a disservice to millions of pre-born babies who are being aborted,” he said.
He’s also disturbed what he sees as a growing anti-disability bias among people who assert the right to abortion.
“If you find out your child has Down syndrome, a lot of people want to push you to have an abortion,” he said.
His youngest brother has autism.
“He has special needs,” said Mr. Glaude. “The idea that a child like him is somehow not worth as much because he has a disability does not make any sense to me. It doesn’t line up with my Catholic faith or the system of government we have that promotes the voices of every single person.”
Mr. Glaude said his mother is a model of women’s empowerment.
“She’s one of the most inspiring people I know, one of the hardest workers, someone I look up to, someone who will fight for me, for herself, for so many things she believes,” he said. “It’s inspiring to have her for a role model.”
Mr. Glaude said some of the most important pro-life work between this year’s and next year’s March for Life will take place in respectful conversations.
“It starts here with being a proper steward of what you believe,” he said. “It starts with compassion.”
At Mass before the group departed for Washington, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight reminded the travelers that they were being sent as ambassadors of the diocese and as pilgrims seeking to encounter Christ on their journey.
They arrived in Washington the next day and visited the Washington Monument and Arlington National Cemetery.
That evening, they joined about 10,000 other pilgrims in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the annual Mass and Prayer Vigil for Life.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the U.S. Catholic bishop’s pro-life committee, noted in his homily that Jesus never said discipleship would be easy.
“He told His first disciples that in order to follow Him they must be willing to take up their cross,” the archbishop stated.
In standing “for the lives of unborn children, you may face ridicule and social exclusion,” the archbishop added. “You may be penalized in the academy and workplace.”
He shared that during his recent “ad limina” visit with Pope Francis, the Pope “encouraged me — I dare say, ordered me — “Please tell the pilgrims at the March for Life and the entire pro-life community: The Pope is with you! He is praying for you!’”
Pilgrims from this diocese gathered early the next morning for Mass and inspiration.
Father Paul Clark, diocesan moderator for pro-life ministries, said in his homily that love means actively pursuing the good of another person above one’s own.
“True love has the power of gentleness that draws other people in and transforms them,” he said. “This pilgrimage is about our hearts being transformed by God’s love so that we may go and share that transformation with every person we encounter.”
Amanda Durbin, a lifelong member of St. Patrick parish in Clarence, told the pilgrims about how her friend’s mother had been traumatized, stigmatized and marginalized by abusive relationships and a series of abortions.
“The Christian community let her down,” Mrs. Durbin stated.
“I ask that you remember those women who have gone down that broken road,” she said. “Pray for them and be there for them, too.”
She talked about the experience of praying on the sidewalk outside Planned Parenthood in Columbia and ministering to women seeking abortions.
“I came to understand the need for Christian love and open hearts for those women and to lead them, not label them — to love them, not judge them — and to just hold their hand through whatever trial brought them there that day,” she said.
Sometimes, women would accept help and turn away from abortion.
Other times, they would go through with the abortion.
“And we were still there when they came back out, waiting to love them and ready to keep walking with them,” she said.
With the help of several like-minded women, Mrs. Durbin opened Ray of Hope Pregnancy Ministries of Macon County.
A year later, they opened a second location for pregnant women in all kinds of crisis situations in neighboring Shelby County.
She spoke passionately of love overcoming fear.
“I’m begging you all to have a heart for everybody — the born and the unborn,” she said.
“Walk with them”
This Washington pilgrimage was a turning point for Tolton Catholic senior Mason Serio.
She had been put off by the toxic rhetoric she had seen on social media from both sides of the abortion debate.
“It’s hard for young people to make a decision when there’s so much harshness and finger-pointing,” she said.
On the pilgrimage, she found the emphasis on changing hearts, rather than laws and policies, to be refreshing. She was drawn to the idea of helping women who have had an abortion and are looking for healing.
“They need to know that there are people who do really want to care for them, who want to walk with them to Christ,” she said.
Miss Serio asked for prayers for better understand among people on both sides of the abortion divide.
“I think people really need to focus on understanding each other,” she said.
“Maybe I can help”
Tolton Catholic senior Haley Kartheiser was amazed to see people from many backgrounds and faith traditions marching in unity for a noble cause.
“I’ve prayed two Rosaries while walking through the March, for all the people who don’t feel the way we do about this,” she said. “Even if I can’t change their heart, I pray that God will do that, and maybe I can help Him.”
She talked about how listening with an open heart to people with different points of view helped her decide to become Catholic in 2017.
She hopes that same spirit of openness and dialogue, with God’s help, will help more people become pro-life.
“We need to be praying for all mothers,” she said. “To be a mother is an amazing thing, and I don’t think mothers always get credit for everything they do.”
Hearing Mrs. Durbin’s story about helping pregnant women in crisis brought her to tears.
“It just touched my heart, what they’ve been able to do to help people,” said Miss Kartheiser. “I know I can help others, and that’s what I want to do.”
Miss Cross said the March is an occasion to thank women who overcome the difficulties of a seemingly ill-timed pregnancy.
She believes individuals and society need to do better at helping and encouraging women who are pregnant, regardless of their circumstances.
“We need to open our arms more,” she said.
“I hope that one day, we can stop abortion by standing together with these women and holding them up in their time of need,” she stated.
Contributing to this report was Mark Pattison of Catholic News Service.