Schools Office prepares for local participation in March for Life

BRAINTREE -- Since the early 2000s, the archdiocese has organized an annual pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., for the national March for Life. After having to forgo this trip in 2021 due to the coronavirus, this year, the Catholic Schools Office is organizing a pilgrimage that will have the same spirit as past trips, with some slight changes to the usual programming.

The national March for Life takes place every year around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that decriminalized abortion in the U.S. The march traditionally begins with a rally and speaking program on the National Mall, then proceeds up Constitution Avenue, and concludes on the steps of the Supreme Court. The theme of the March for Life this year is "Equality begins in the womb."

Delegations of pilgrims from the Archdiocese of Boston have attended the march almost every year since Cardinal Seán O'Malley became the archbishop in 2003. In recent years, this "Witness to Life" pilgrimage typically offered two travel options, one for a 24-hour trip and another for a multi-day trip. The latter usually included visiting local sites, attending the Life is VERY Good rally the night before the march, and opportunities for Mass, eucharistic adoration, and confession.

Colleen Donohoe, the Catholic Schools Office's associate superintendent of Catholic identity, took it upon herself to organize this year's archdiocesan trip, which will take place Jan. 20-22. A longtime respect life educator, Donohoe was one of those involved in organizing the archdiocese's first pilgrimages to the March for Life, and has attended it herself for over 20 years in the capacity of a teacher, campus minister, or archdiocesan staff member.

Donohoe said that taking students on the March for Life is one of her favorite parts of her work, and that seeing them "joyfully witness to the dignity of the human person" is "a gift to my heart." She said that some of her former students still talk about it, and that it has been a life-changing experience for many.

"For me that's enough to overcome whatever challenges come our way. It's a lot of work, but it's well worth it," Donohoe said.

She said that the pilgrimage is something that she and Superintendent Thomas Carroll are "100 percent committed to." Since it is an initiative of the cardinal, who has participated in every march since its inception, they have been in close contact with his office in coordinating plans for the trip.

In late December, Donohoe reported that about 300 people, including groups from 10 different schools, have registered for the trip. She said about 95 percent of the pilgrims will be from Catholic schools, and some priests serving as chaplains will have small groups from their parishes.

Whereas previous Witness to Life pilgrimages involved traveling by bus, this year the pilgrims will travel by train from Boston to Washington, D.C. Besides the march itself, which will take place on Jan. 21, the itinerary also includes some new activities this year.

One stop will be at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Cardinal O'Malley is to celebrate Mass on the morning of Jan. 21 to close the National Prayer Vigil for Life. The group will also visit the St. John Paul II National Shrine and explore the outdoor monuments and memorials in Washington, D.C. Because the cardinal requested a vocational presence on the trip, the pilgrims will hear witness talks from the Sisters of Life and the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth.

Donohoe said going on the march reminds her of why she does her work and why she is committed to upholding the dignity of the human person.

"Our young people deserve to hear the truth, and they deserve to experience the joy and the beauty and the goodness of our Church when the Church is in motion," she said.

Although the march is primarily in opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision, Donohoe said, being "a witness to life" means testifying to the dignity of every human life at every stage.

"I think that the Gospel of Life unites us in a particular way where so many other issues do not. There's so much division in our world today, so I want our young people to see, and to also receive, that they are called to unite," she said.

Looking at the political current climate, as the Supreme Court considers its decision for Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization that could potentially overturn Roe v. Wade, Donohoe said she thinks it is "a hopeful time" for the pro-life movement, but that they also must "remain particularly vigilant in prayer, and in witness and in education."

Regardless of what the law is, Donohoe said, she hopes people never stop celebrating life.

"It's a never-ending, beautiful gift the Lord has given us, and we just have to keep proclaiming it," she said.

Donohoe said she hopes people will pray for the pilgrims, as well as for the country and its leaders.

"Not everyone is called to march in Washington, D.C. Many other people are called to witness to life in a different way. And prayer, even though it might not be overt and people might not even know about it, is so efficacious. I truly believe that it will protect us, lead us, guide us," she said.