by Kathy Schmugge
WASHINGTON — The forecast for the Washington area would have been enough to deter most travelers from visiting the nation’s capital, but it did not discourage tens of thousands of pro-life marchers. On Jan. 24, they arrived by bus, airplane and car to declare to the world, by their witness, that all human life is sacred from the moment of conception until natural death.
Despite the icy-cold conditions, the 2005 March for Life had a record number of participants, estimated at 250,000. Some traveled many hours from Alaska, California and Florida to be a part of the pro-life events. Members of the Diocese of Charleston also made the trip.
About 200 South Carolinians — almost double the number who attended last year’s march — made the trek to Washington by buses which left from Columbia, Charleston, Hilton Head, and Beaufort. Cardinal Newman School in Columbia and Bishop England High School in Charleston each had close to 30 students in attendance. Others traveled by car or plane.
Valerie Baronkin, the trip coordinator for the diocese, was pleased with the large turnout this year. By providing the option of flying, more people were able to attend.
John Waters, youth minister at St. Joseph Church in Columbia, was glad to see the number of his participating youth jump from four students last year to 25 this year. He attributes the growth to word of mouth and the continued support of the Catholic schools.
His youth group also received a private tour of the Capitol by Congressman Joe Wilson and his wife, Roxanne.
The night before the march an overflow crowd filled the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the National Prayer Vigil for Life. The basilica holds about 6,000 worshippers in the Great Upper Church and an additional 400 in the Crypt Church.
The principal celebrant and homilist was Cardinal William Keeler, Archbishop of Baltimore and chair of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee.
“The basilica is the most beautiful church I have ever been to in my life,” said Penny Rosen, a Presbyterian student from Cardinal Newman. She loved the art work and sculpture.
On the morning of the march, the Rally for Life and Youth Mass were held at the MCI Center. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, was the principal celebrant and was joined by thousands of other priests and the dynamic homilist Father Andrew Fisher, associate rector of the basilica.
“In the womb God had a plan for us to love. Each of us has a bond with all humanity,” said Father Fisher. “We wear the same uniform and play for the same team.”
He challenged the youth to be pro-life in all they do, which means reaching out to the outcast, the unpopular, and the unloved around them in their daily lives.
Quoting from Pope John Paul II’s “Gospel of Life,” he said two things were necessary for spreading this message. First, the church needs good teachers who teach by example, and second, it needs good missionaries. The priest explained that a mission territory could be one’s own neighborhood, school, or even the Internet.
“Some say that youth are afraid to commit. I have never found that to be the case. You are enthusiastic and generous,” said Father Fisher to the roaring cheers of 21,000 youth. He suggested that they were tailored for the job of ambassadors for life and commissioned them to be instruments of change.
“Remember that with God, change is possible. May the Eucharist strengthen us for our mission to transform the world, one person at a time,” he said.
Tony Melendez was the highlight of the rally for many of the participants. Born without arms, the talented musician and singer uses his toes to play the guitar and evangelizes through his music. Melendez thanked the youth for standing up for life, expressing with great emotion how especially vulnerable an unborn with birth defects can be.
“As long as I can love God, let me live,” said Melendez.
The annual march has taken place since the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade on Jan. 22, 1974. At the rally before the march, crowds gathered at the Atrium to hear the guest speakers and pro-life politicians discuss the victories and battles ahead for the cause of life.
Encouragement also came from Missouri congressman Todd Akin, the father of six children. “You are fighting for the same basic freedom that our founders fought for — that people have dignity, worth and value — and we will never stop until we put an end to abortion,” he said.
Participants then processed down Constitution Avenue to the Capitol and finally ended the march at the Supreme Court Building.
“I have always been very pro-life, but I felt glad to be able to stand up for what I believe in,” said Ben Fisher, an eleventh-grader at Cardinal Newman and a Baptist. He said that the most powerful sign that took the most courage to carry was the one that read, “I had an abortion and I regret it.”
Susan Henry, one of the chaperones for the Columbia youth, was impressed with the number of people participating in the march. “Such a crowd could be threatening, but not these marchers. It was a wonderful and moving experience,” she said.
Peter Drogalis, also a student from Cardinal Newman, was not as surprised by the endless stream of marchers since he recently moved from a town in Virginia where the event was well publicized and covered locally.
“The national news has always under-reported the event,” said Drogalis.
Newlyweds Joe and Ivy Monahon of St. Mary Help of Christians Church in Aiken met on the march last year and were married in December at Corpus Christi Church in Lexington. The march will always have great meaning for the couple.
“God willing, we will be back next year,” said Mrs. Monahon.