'Witness to Life' pilgrims march in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Nearly 200 people from the Archdiocese of Boston, including many high school students accompanied by teachers and parents, journeyed to Washington, D.C., on the archdiocese's "Witness to Life" pilgrimage to participate in the 47th annual March for Life on Jan. 24.

The archdiocese offered two traveling options: a 24-hour track, and a three-day overnight track. Over 60 pilgrims went on the "24 Hours for Life" track, departing by coach bus in the evening of Jan. 23. Almost 140 pilgrims went on the "Stay, Pray, and Play" track, departing from various locations on the morning of Jan. 23.

A Genocide Survivor's Story

After a full day of traveling, the pilgrims on the Stay, Pray, and Play track attended the Life is VERY Good Rally at Eagle Bank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia.

The rally included music from worship leader and singer/songwriter Andrew Laubacher, known as ALOB. Bishop Michael Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington offered welcoming remarks and later led the attendees in adoration.

The keynote speaker at the rally was Immaculee Ilibagiza, author of "Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust." Holding a rosary in her hand, she talked about her experience surviving the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"It was an experience that taught me so much about life, love of life. It taught me the importance of love, loving one another. It taught me the importance of forgiveness, and above all it really taught me what it means to be pro-life," she said.

Ilibagiza was a college student visiting home during the Easter holidays when the president of Rwanda was assassinated. As news spread that the people of their tribe were being killed, her father instructed her to hide in the home of a neighbor. For three months, she and seven other women were confined to a small bathroom, three feet by four feet.

She said she came to fully believe in God when her unspoken, mental prayer for protection was answered during a raid on the house. She later learned that one of the people searching the house for people of her tribe had stood just outside the doorway and put his hand on the doorknob before turning away.

The rosary played a transformative role in Ilibagiza's journey of faith. To distract herself from thoughts of fear and anger, she prayed constantly throughout each day, using a rosary her father had given her.

For a time, she omitted the words of the Lord's Prayer about forgiveness, because she did not feel that she could forgive the people trying to kill her. She prayed for help forgiving, and she reflected on Christ's death, particularly his words on the cross, "Forgive them, for they don't know what they do."

"Instead of hating those who were killing us, I started to pray for them, because I knew now the power of prayer. It can change hearts," Ilibagiza said, adding that, "I saw them as people who have been overcome by evil, but who can become good, as I was changing too."

When Ilibagiza finally left her hiding place and went to a refugee camp, she learned that her parents and two of her three brothers had been killed. She went through the camp each day looking for people she could love and help.

"When I see you, it reminds me what it means to be pro-life, to care for one another. And I hope at the end of this conference, when you go home you can love a little bit more," Ilibagiza told the rally attendees.

Ilibagiza's talk was followed by a eucharistic procession through the arena and a period of adoration.

Marching for Life

On Jan. 24, Boston pilgrims joined other groups from across New England for a Mass at Sacred Heart Shrine in Washington, D.C. Parish volunteers served the pilgrims breakfast and provided bagged lunches for them to take on their buses to the march.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, who served at Sacred Heart Shrine as a young priest, led the celebration of the Mass. Music was provided by the Boy Choristers of St. Paul's Church in Harvard Square, led by music director James Kennerley.

The pilgrims on the two Witness to Life tracks met again to participate in the March for Life, which began near the Washington Monument. It ended outside the Supreme Court, where the Roe v. Wade case was decided in 1973, effectively legalizing abortion in the United States.

As they processed down Constitution Avenue, the marchers spotted Attorney General William Barr watching the march from a balcony of the Department of Justice building.

Upon reaching the Supreme Court, the Boston pilgrims prayed a Chaplet of Divine Mercy together.

After the march, the pilgrims on the 24 Hours for Life track left Washington, D.C.

The pilgrims on the Stay, Pray and Play track went to the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, Virginia. After a dinner provided by parishioners, Colleen Donohoe, associate superintendent of Catholic Identity and Respect Life Educator for the archdiocese, led a group discussion in the sanctuary.

Donohoe previously worked in the Pro-Life Office for many years and attended the March for Life several times as a youth minister and theology teacher accompanying her own students. This was her 21st time participating in the March for Life.

"After being at march after march, watching them grow exponentially in number, with enthusiasm, with young people, I am convinced that you will change these laws. That you will make abortion unthinkable in this country," Donohoe said as she addressed the students.

She told them about pro-life resources offered by the archdiocese, including Pregnancy Help and Project Rachel. She then opened the floor to the students, inviting them to share the reasons why they came on the trip and what they learned from the experience.

Julia, a junior from Lowell Catholic High School, said she came because she wanted to march on behalf of the unborn. However, during the trip she realized being a "witness to life" was about more than that.

"I realized that we're a witness to life, not only before the babies are born, but at all stages of life. I was watching all the people walk, smiling and just having a good time. We're here as witnesses to life in all stages of life, before and after you're born and up until you die," Julia said.

Natalie, a freshman from Ursuline Academy in Dedham, said she was "totally amazed" not only by the great number of people at the march, but also by the fact that they were so diverse in ages, political opinions, and religions, and that they could "all come together" for this cause.

Following their discussion, the pilgrims had a period of eucharistic adoration with opportunities for confession before returning to their hotel.

On Jan. 25, the pilgrims attended a Mass at St. Dominic Church in Washington, D.C., and paid a brief visit to Arlington National Cemetery before traveling back to Massachusetts.