Vocations a key theme in Boston March for Life pilgrimage

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Vocation was a recurring theme during the Archdiocese of Boston's trip to participate in the annual March for Life. In between other stops on their itinerary, the students, chaperones, and families heard witness talks from a priest and two women religious, who connected the concepts of vocation and human dignity.

The reflections were given on Jan. 21, the same day as the march, by Mother Olga Yaqob, foundress of the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth; Father Matthew Conley of St. Mary of the Nativity Parish in Scituate; and Sister of Life Marie Veritas.

Mother Olga and Father Conley spoke to the assembled pilgrims at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The students sat on the floor of the parish hall, rapt with attention, as Mother Olga began the talks.

Mother Olga started by asking everyone to look at the people sitting next to them. Then she spoke about how the book of Genesis describes human beings as made "in the image and likeness of God." She said the dignity of the human person has marked her vocation and was her primary reason for becoming a religious sister.

"There is more in every person than what you see," Mother Olga said.

She recalled a time when, living in Iraq in her early 20s, she found the body of a homeless man who had died and begun to rot on the street. Even though she could not save his life, she wanted to give him a decent burial. A few people helped her carry the body to the convent, but the smell of it was too much for the other sisters. Mother Olga washed him by herself and said that, to her, he smelled of incense.

Her other stories addressed the dignity of babies and the unborn.

Mother Olga recounted the story of a woman who had suffered a miscarriage at 17 weeks. The child's remains were buried in Massachusetts, but the family then moved to Wisconsin. Mother Olga arranged to have the casket relocated and delivered it herself.

When she told the airline what she was transporting, they announced it to everyone on her flight and allowed her to get on and off the plane before the other passengers. Everyone at their gate and the neighboring gates stood silently while she boarded the plane with the baby.

Mother Olga contrasted this reverence with claims that an unborn fetus is just tissue.

She reminded the pilgrims that while being pro-life includes protecting the dignity of vulnerable groups like the unborn, "to be pro-life is also to uphold the dignity of each person next to you."

"We are here to march for life, to march for God, and to march for each other," she said. She then encouraged them all to take up that mantra.

Jean Kelley, a parishioner of St. Paul Parish in Hingham who came on the trip, noted that none of the teenagers or younger children spoke during Mother Olga's talk.

"She really commanded their attention because she was so genuine and beautiful," Kelley said.

Father Conley took the stage next, speaking with energy and sometimes self-deprecating humor about what a vocation is and what it means to witness to one's faith. He started by explaining the distinction between a job and a vocation.

"A vocation is separate (from a job). A vocation is a purpose. It's a God-given purpose for you," he said.

He recalled one of the first occasions when he wore a Roman collar as a seminarian. A man approached him on the street, at first seeming confrontational, but then stopped when he saw Father Conley's collar. The man said his father had just died in a car accident and asked if Father Conley would pray with him.

"My willingness to witness to the faith allowed that man to find God," Father Conley said.

He told the students that they also have the opportunity to "challenge the system" by witnessing to their faith.

"It doesn't mean you have to be Mother Teresa overnight. It doesn't mean you have to be a saint right now. But it means you have to be willing to become a saint. And that requires wisdom, fortitude, patience, humility," Father Conley said.

He said when they find their vocations, they must live them out "as a symbol for the world" so that they, too, may help others come to God.

"Your witness is powerful, and your witness can change the world. It's not just a cliche; it is a fact. So, witness and live it well and become saints," he said.

After participating in the march, the pilgrims went to St. Thomas More Cathedral in Arlington, Virginia, for dinner, reflections, and Eucharistic Adoration. It was there that the Sisters of Life met up with the group, and Sister Marie Veritas shared her reflection.

She spoke about how God created each person for infinite communion with him and with each other.

"We can't treat ourselves cheaply. The fact that we exist means that we are loved," Sister Marie Veritas said.

She told the pilgrims that what God desires most is "that you give him permission to love you."

She also talked about the pro-life ministry of the Sisters of Life and shared a story about one of their lay coworkers, Dr. Elvira Parravicini, a neonatologist who deals with high-risk pregnancies.

Dr. Parravicini once accompanied a teenage couple who were having conjoined twins who shared a single heart. Despite knowing the twins would not live long, the parents chose not to abort them.

When the twins were born, the 15-year-old father asked to hold them. Dr. Parravicini offered to baptize them, and the parents agreed, but the father corrected her when she mixed up their names.

"The gaze of that teenage father upon his infant daughters is like the gaze of God the Father upon you, right now. He sees you. He knows you. He loves you. And he takes joy in you," Sister Marie Veritas said.

She went on to explain that "love alone defines the human person."

"You're made for love. You come from love. Love is our destiny and identity. That's where we know who we are, in his gaze, letting him call your name," she told the pilgrims.

She said that being pro-life starts in one's own heart, "because until we can receive the gift of ourselves, it's very hard to receive the gift of someone else."