The Kneeler Revolution

In a Jan. 20th article in Slate, an online news magazine, reporter Jeremy Singer-Vine discussed the relatively new practice of naming non-violent national revolutions after objects or colors, beginning with the 1989 "Velvet" Revolution in Czechoslovakia, continuing with similar uprisings named "Rose" (Georgia), "Orange" (Ukraine), "Tulip" (Kyrgyzstan), "Purple" (Iraq), "Saffron" (Burma), and "Green" (Iran), and including the most recent "Jasmine" Revolution in Tunisia. After traveling to Washington, D.C. to participate in this year"s March for Life, I am convinced that we are, in this country, in the midst of the "Kneeler" Revolution.

My wife Elaine and I drove down early to attend an afternoon Mass and reception sponsored by the Pro-Life Office of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on the campus of Catholic University. Beforehand, we spent several hours at my favorite place for retreating to pray and reflect, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. This was on Sunday, the day before the march.

Already, hundreds of pilgrims were on their knees before the Blessed Sacrament, consisting of the young and the young-at-heart, as Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. described them in a homily at the shrine on Monday morning. The number would swell to the thousands as the hours progressed. Judging from the speeches delivered by ministers of different faiths from the stage before the march began, Catholics were not the only ones on their knees.

The most public element of the March for Life, always held around Jan. 22, the anniversary of the 1973 United States Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade, the case that legalized abortion on demand for all nine months of pregnancy, is of course the March itself. The crowds in the street were large, fed by the endless and constant flow of color-coded travelers from Texas, Minnesota, Florida, and numerous other states. The crowds were both reverent and enthusiastic, boosted by the priceless energy of the youth and young adults, providing the march with its predominant demographic.

And the most critical action of the day, the citizen-lobbying in the halls of Congress, was encouraging in its magnitude. The entrances to many offices were plugged with pilgrim constituents, waiting to leave a word with their government employees. One Senate staffer, a first-timer on the Hill, told me how amazed he was to see the largest gathering of people that he had ever witnessed in Washington on such a cold day.

As important as public witness and lobbying are, this revolution-in-the-making will owe its success ultimately to prayer and sacrifice. Certain "demons," such as the practice of abortion and its unjust enshrinement in the law, can only be overcome by starting with prayer; they will not succumb quickly or easily no matter how effectively we politically organize. Their defeat will demand patience and fidelity to God's promised providence, come when it may, and these virtues can only be developed and strengthened on one's knees.

The March for Life has made the National Shrine a prayer station for nearly all the Catholic high school and college groups that bus to Washington and this makes me particularly happy. Every year as a result more and more young Catholics are discovering the spirit-lifting atmosphere of a sacred space dedicated to Mary. Many undoubtedly find there the courage, the wisdom, the comfort, and the peace they need to confront the challenge of defending life in this death-dealing culture, and perhaps they will be drawn to return in the future for further spiritual guidance in their life's course.

The Kneeler Revolution will progress in ways large and small, rewarding our patience through often surprising and unexpected developments in the face of delays and reversals. I was reminded of this when I heard a story shared by a friend of mine at the Bishops" Pro-Life Office reception.

Richard Stith, a law professor and one of my beloved mentors, told a group of us that when the Roe decision was handed down, he was a student at Yale Law School. In response to the decision, Richard decided to create a poster against the decision (complete with a large black-and-white photo of aborted babies in a bucket) on the law school wall, despite the extreme unpopularity of his position among fellow students and the faculty. He acted alone.

The problem was that every time he put up a poster, someone would come along and rip it down when he was not looking. He kept making new copies and taping them up. At one point, an unhappy student saw Richard in action and sneered at him to stop or else. "I know where you live, Stith," he threatened. Richard ignored the challenge and put his poster right back up.

Years later, when he introduced himself to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Richard was surprised when the Justice told him that he had wanted for a long time to meet Richard. Justice Thomas explained that as a fellow Yale law student, and unbeknownst to Richard, he witnessed the encounter between Richard and the upset classmate. Despite being indifferent about abortion during that stage of his life, he was impressed by Richard's willingness to stand up for his principles and swore to himself that he would have the same strength of his convictions. Richard's small act planted the seeds for Clarence Thomas's own courageous stand.

Daniel Avila is the Associate Director for Policy and Research of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference.