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Gretchen Filz: On the March for Life with pilgrims from Huntersville
The St. Mark (Huntersville) pilgrims camped overnight Thursday at the Knights of Columbus hall in Arlington, Va. We awoke Friday morning to below freezing weather outside and a delicious hot breakfast inside. When a bagel tray would've been sufficient and appreciated, the Knights, out of the abundance of their charitable spirit, served us scrambled eggs, hash browns, french toast, sausage, bacon, muffins, biscuits and fresh fruit.
The fuel was definitely needed as cold temperatures, an impending snowfall and a long march awaited the pilgrims that day. After breakfast we loaded up and headed back to the basilica for the North Carolina Mass with celebrants Charlotte Bishop Peter Jugis and Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge. We arrived with an hour of free time beforehand to walk around and take in the beauty of the basilica. It was still very busy inside, but not quite as crowded as it was for the opening vigil Mass the night before.
Masses were being said back to back by bishops upstairs, as well as by the Capuchin friars in the crypt church downstairs, all with packed pews. Walking around the basilica, you could see the Catholic faith being practiced everywhere. Enclaves of altars outside the crypt church contained priests praying the Divine Office in one, a bishop saying Mass in another, and a priest leading the rosary in yet another. While the excited youth were enjoying the day as young people do, socializing with friends and having a good time, there was plenty of deep and prayerful reverence going on all around them.
I bumped into two of these young people in the basilica gift shop. Two young friends, Abbey Cummings and Annie Hetzel, arrived from the Charlotte diocese on the bus from St. Vincent de Paul Church. Abbey was a veteran pilgrim and it was Annie's first time.
“I've been to the march several times” said the young Abbey. “It's such a cool experience. I wanted my friend to have that experience and see how many other people are pro-life.”
Annie added, “I've never been before – it's a cool cause.”
Seeing an interview taking place near him, 8-year-old Robbie Hipkins presented himself as my next interview. After I asked him why he was there, Robbie replied, “You know the thing about the babies dying? We came here to try to save them.” Robbie had come to the march with the pilgrims from St. Michael Church in Gastonia. “It is not OK for mommies to allow their babies to be killed,” he said very matter-of-factly. “I also wanted to see the church, and we were really lucky that we got a seat."
Due to the presidential inauguration earlier in the week, the National March for Life was delayed a few days after the Jan. 22 anniversary date of Roe v. Wade. But that meant this year's march fell on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul – and conversion is exactly what we were there to pray for on behalf of our nation. I wondered whether this was a God-appointed alignment for such a historic march – estimated to be half a million people – on a noteworthy 40th anniversary; could this be a sign of hope?
In his homily at the North Carolina Mass for Life, Bishop Jugis highlighted this significance when he tied the Gospel reading on the conversion of St. Paul to the pro-life movement.
“What was missing from Saul of Tarsus was love and humility,” said Bishop Jugis. “Saul didn't realize it, but God was pursuing Saul more fiercely than Saul was pursuing the Christians.”
In the same way here in the United States and across the world, “God is also fiercely pursuing the culture of death, to conquer it with his love.”
Just as Saul was absolutely convinced he was right in his persecution of the Christians, Bishop Jugis noted, so today many pro-abortionists believe they are right in fighting to keep abortion legal. But because of what God did through St. Paul, we can be confident in conversions to the culture of life because, “He can change the most hardened of hearts, and St. Paul is proof of that.”
Referencing the campaign currently being promoted by the U.S. bishops for the intentions of life, liberty and religious freedom, Bishop Jugis said, “We wish to pursue the culture of death and overcome it with God's love and His grace.”
In closing, Bishop Jugis invoked the intercession of St. Paul to help us all to love Jesus more.
Immediately following Mas,s we loaded up for the 10-minute drive to the march drop-off point, but not without a few extra passengers. Seven of our Charlotte diocese seminarians caught a ride with us to the location of the march, where we also met up with Father Timothy Reid, pastor at St. Ann Church in Charlotte, and Father Christopher Roux, pastor and rector at St. Patrick Cathedral in Charlotte.
We were swept up into the tide of the march immediately, as it flowed like a river down Constitutional Avenue. Our group wore matching scarves to help us identify each other. As far as the eye could see in both directions were hundreds of thousands of people – some estimate 500,000 marchers.
About halfway into the march, a soft snow started to fall. The vast number of young people added to the palpable energy by cheering pro-life slogans such as “We love babies, yes we do! We love babies how 'bout you?"
There were almost as many signs and banners as there were marchers representing the many pro-life groups, schools and parishes present, in addition to religious images of Jesus and Mary and pro-life posters.
It was truly an amazing experience as we marched between Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court of the United States, where Roe v Wade had been decided 40 years earlier.
After the march many groups split from the crowd and huddled together to pray the rosary or the Divine Mercy Chaplet, as our group did next to the Supreme Court building.
Many continued on to two nearby churches, St. Peter's and St. Joseph's, which had hot chocolate waiting for the cold marchers. Our group arrived at St. Joseph's just in time to hear parts of another Mass being said inside the packed church, while other marchers gathered outside for hot chocolate. There we saw Bishop Jugis, who was kind enough to stop for a picture and talk with us, and a few other priests headed inside the church.
Our St. Mark's group then loaded up on the bus and headed back home. A great ending to an epic and memorable day. This one is for the history books.
— Gretchen Filz is a member of St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Charlotte. She accompanied the pilgrims from St. Mark Church in Huntersville to Washington, D.C., for the National March for Life.