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BRAINTREE -- Busloads of pilgrims departed Boston on Jan. 17 to join hundreds of thousands of others from around the country in Washington, D.C., in the days before the anniversary of the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision to witness to the value of human life.
This year, the archdiocese offered two tracks for those who wished to go on the Witness to Life pilgrimage, centered around participation in the annual March for Life on Jan. 18.
Approximately, 40 pilgrims went on the 24-hour track, while about 200 went on the three-day Stay, Pray, and Play track. The Pilot accompanied pilgrims on the Stay, Pray, and Play track, who departed from various locations on the morning of Jan. 17. The 24-hour pilgrims departed that evening.
After a full day of traveling by coach bus, the Stay, Play and Pray pilgrims attended the Life Is VERY Good Rally at Eagle Bank Arena at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. The band I Am They provided music for the evening of prayer, and Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge offered remarks. For a few minutes, as the band played, the lights were turned out, and the rally attendees lit their cell phones' flashlights and waved them in time with the music.
The featured speaker at the rally was author Chris Stefanick, who talked about how to find joy in life. He quoted Pope Benedict XVI, who said, "The happiness that you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face. It is Jesus of Nazareth."
Stefanick argued that joy "doesn't come from the changing circumstances of this world. Joy, for us, comes from the never-ending, overwhelming reckless love of God."
"Joy for us Christians doesn't come from everything in life going perfectly, it comes from being loved perfectly," he said.
He pointed to the words of the prophet Nehemiah, when the Israelites returned from exile and wanted to rebuild their city. Nehemiah 8:10 reads, "The joy of the Lord is your strength."
"The joy of the Lord must be your strength, but you have to fight for the joy of the Lord," Stefanick said.
The Life Is VERY Good Rally ended with a period of Eucharistic adoration. The floor was stone, and the bleacher seats were tightly packed, but every pilgrim knelt in what little space was available to them as the Blessed Sacrament was exposed and carried in a procession through the arena.
On the morning of Jan. 18, pilgrims from both of the Witness to Life tracks went to Sacred Heart Shrine in Washington, D.C., where Cardinal O'Malley had served as a young priest. Volunteers served the visitors breakfast.
Cardinal O'Malley and other priests from Massachusetts and Maine celebrated a bilingual Mass -- with different parts in English and Spanish -- for the pilgrims.
In his homily, Cardinal O'Malley looked not only at the day's gospel reading about the healing of a paralytic, but also at Jesus' other miracles and parables.
He pointed out that when Jesus cast a legion of demons out of a possessed man and into a herd of pigs, the people complained that the pigs were lost. He supposed that Peter and his mother-in-law were "probably ticked off" about the hole made by the paralytic's friends in their roof.
"So often we fail to be able to see the miracle," Cardinal O'Malley said.
Looking at the parable of the Good Samaritan, Cardinal O'Malley pointed out that the Samaritan was probably afraid to get involved, since he could have been blamed for the robbery. He could have looked for someone else to help the injured man.
"It's a level of engagement that seems beyond what people would normally do. And yet, Jesus is telling us that this is what he expects of his disciples. We have to be willing to climb up on the roof sometimes. We have to be willing to take some risks," Cardinal O'Malley said.
He spoke of a book by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, the late archbishop of Milan, about Jesus' priorities in his public ministry. Cardinal O'Malley had assumed evangelization was his top priority, but Cardinal Martini found that Jesus spent more time in works of mercy.
From this observation, Cardinal O'Malley concluded, "The gospel can be proclaimed only in the context of mercy. And this is true of the pro-life gospel as well. In order to convince people of the truth of the miracle of life, we must assure them that they are important to us, that we care about them."
He pointed to the astonishment of the people who witnessed the healing of the paralytic.
"As pro-life disciples of Jesus Christ, we must astonish people by our mercy, our engagement, our willingness to forgive, our compassion for those in trouble and in pain," Cardinal O'Malley said.
After the Mass, the Boston pilgrims received bagged lunches prepared by volunteers. The pilgrims congregated on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and carried their banners -- one for the archdiocese and one for Arlington Catholic High School -- across the National Mall to the beginning of the march route.
One participant, Brother Rene Roy, participated in the first March for Life organized by Nellie Gray in 1974, a year after the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision decriminalized abortion. He recalled that the keynote speaker said they would keep coming back.
"The fact that it's gained momentum is very, very hopeful. So we can't stop. We've got to keep going," Brother Roy said, speaking to the Pilot before the march began.
The ground was muddy on the National Mall, but the weather proved relatively mild, with the sun coming out in the afternoon. The march ended in front of the Supreme Court, where the Boston pilgrims prayed a Chaplet of Divine Mercy before returning to their buses.
Reflecting on Life
While the pilgrims on the 24-hour track began their journey back to Massachusetts, the Stay, Play and Pray pilgrims went to the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, Virginia. After dinner, they discussed their reasons for going on the trip and what impacted them most on the journey. They first talked in small groups and then reconvened to share as one large group.
"I was really excited that processing is part of this trip, that we don't just do something and let it sit, that we pray about it, we talk about it, we hear opinions about it, we listen to each other, and then we can actually share our feelings and thoughts," Arlington Catholic High School chaperone Scott Morin told the Pilot.
To begin the large group discussion, Elizabeth Cotrupi, director of Family Life and Ecclesial Movements, told everyone to count the people at their table and assign them each a number -- one, two, or three. Once they had done so, she told them to imagine that every third person had been aborted. This was meant to show how much of the population is lost to abortion.
"The witness can't die here. It has to go home," Cotrupi told them.
The pilgrims took turns sharing highlights of their experience as well as their faith testimonies and how they came to be pro-life.
One student shared that his mother had received a poor prenatal diagnosis when she was pregnant with him, but chose not to abort him. A chaperone talked about losing his child to abortion after receiving a similar prenatal diagnosis. Some also brought up other demographics whose humanity and dignity are often overlooked, such as the homeless and the elderly.
"I've been continually impressed by these young adults, their maturity, their questions, their openness to hear, to learn, to find the answers," Morin told the Pilot, looking back on the discussion.
Arlington Catholic High School student Michaela Gallagher described her work caring for the elderly poor with the Little Sisters of the Poor over the past three years. She said one of the most beautiful experiences is being with someone who is dying.
"They are Christ, when they're lying in that bed and they're completely dependent on you. It's Christ, and you're right there, and he's going through his Passion all over again. He's in the garden, and he's suffering, and then he's carrying his cross -- and you get to be Simon. You get to help them carry his cross. You get to be Veronica, you wipe his face. And then, at the very end, you get to be Mary, his mother, right by that cross until the very end," she told the pilgrims.
Gallagher concluded, "It's so important to uphold the dignity of life, not just in the womb, although that's incredibly important, but all throughout life, up until the very second when that person goes home to God."
Mia Kochanczyk, a grade 11 student at Presentation of Mary Academy, told the Pilot she and her two older siblings are adopted.
"I think if my birth mother had the opportunity for abortion, she might have taken that route. That kind of scares me a little. But hearing these people's stories and how some kids, their parents chose their life even if it might have been hard for them, or even with any risks that might have come. That's what I think this is all about, taking that chance, because sometimes, things can turn out for the best for that parent, for their child, for all the lives that they touch," she said.
After the group discussion, the pilgrims held Adoration in the church before returning to their hotel.
The following day, Jan. 19, was originally intended to be a day for sightseeing, but due to the Women's March taking place in Washington, D.C., and a forecast of a snowstorm in Massachusetts, they instead began the return journey in the morning after celebrating Mass inside the hotel's restaurant.
"Now the work to be done is at home and at the parish level," Morin told the Pilot during the journey back to Massachusetts.
He added, "Work needs to be done so that these young people and adults can have a place to continue to grow in their faith and discuss these issues and pray for these issues."