Boston pilgrims participate in first post-Roe March for Life

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Although Roe v. Wade was overturned last year, the Archdiocese of Boston continued its tradition of participating in the National March for Life on Jan. 20, joining thousands from across the country in protesting abortion and testifying to the dignity of life.

The annual March for Life began as a response to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion in the U.S. Beginning on the first anniversary of Roe's passage, the march has been held every year for nearly 50 years, making it the longest-running human rights demonstration in the world.

Roe was overturned last June when the Supreme Court handed down its Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling that there is no constitutional right to abortion and returning the power to legislate abortion to the states. Nevertheless, it was decided that the March for Life would take place as usual, marking what would have been the 50th anniversary of Roe's passage.

Colleen Donohoe, the archdiocese's assistant superintendent of Catholic identity, organized the archdiocese's 2023 Witness to Life Pilgrimage, which took place Jan. 19-21. Students and teachers from several Catholic schools and homeschooling programs traveled by bus to participate in the March for Life and related events. Father Eric Cadin and Father Michael Zimmerman, who work in the Vocations Office, and Father Ed Riley, the chaplain for the Catholic Schools Office, served as chaplains for the pilgrims.

Life Fest

On Jan. 20, the day of the march, the pilgrims rose early to attend the first-ever Life Fest, organized by the Sisters of Life and the Knights of Columbus. According to OSV News, approximately 4,200 people attended the event, which was held at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington's Congress Heights neighborhood.

Focusing on the theme that "Love is the answer," the Life Fest included speakers, eucharistic adoration, and the celebration of Mass. Sister Bethany Madonna served as emcee, and singer-songwriter Sarah Kroger led the assembly in praise and worship music.

Sister Bethany Madonna affirmed the pro-life movement's commitment to marching in Washington even after the end of Roe v. Wade.

"We are here to continue until every heart knows the truth, that love is the answer, because love is a person, and that person is Jesus Christ," she said.

One of the featured speakers was David Scotton, an adoption lawyer whose life story is depicted in the documentary "I Lived on Parker Avenue" and the feature film "Lifemark."

Scotton's birth mother was a senior in high school when she became pregnant. She sought an abortion but changed her mind after encountering a pro-life activist outside the clinic. She instead gave birth and placed her son for adoption. Scotton eventually met his biological parents as an adult.

"Remember that your work saves lives. Your work builds families. Truly, I cannot thank you enough for what you do and for being here today," Scotton said.

A married couple, Peter and Tricia DeMaio, shared their story of healing after two abortions and their return to the Catholic faith. Just the night before, while driving to Washington, they had explained their past to their younger children, who pointed out that they had not chosen names for the two babies they aborted. They decided to name them after St. Raphael, patron of healing, and St. Maria Goretti, patron of forgiveness.

Another Sister of Life, Sister Mary Casey O'Connor, took the stage with her twin sister, Casey Gunning, who has Down syndrome. The two would also speak at the March for Life rally later that day.

The homilist for the Mass was Father Joseph Hagan, a Dominican priest. He spoke about his encounter with a single mother who initially expressed many doubts and reservations about the Catholic Church but ended up sharing her life story with him. He explained that the first thing someone says about the Church might not be the real matter they are wrestling with.

"Keep listening. Make it clear you're going to keep listening until we get to the real thing. And once we get to the real thing, it's simple. Just love them," Father Hagan said.

He told the rally attendees that they do not need to wait until they find someone in crisis before listening and accompanying others.

"Start practicing today," he said.

Marching for Life

As in past years, the March for Life began with a rally and speaking program on the National Mall. This year's speakers included former Indianapolis Colts Head Coach Tony Dungy; Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, who argued the Dobbs case before the Supreme Court; Gianna Emanuela Molla, the daughter of St. Gianna Beretta Molla; and Jonathan Roumie, the actor who portrays Jesus in "The Chosen."

The Boston pilgrims left the rally to meet up with Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley, who was also present at the march. He addressed them briefly and prayed over them before the march began. Cardinal O'Malley has attended every March for Life since the event's inception and often speaks of his friendship with the march's founder, Nellie Gray.

The march has traditionally ended at the steps of the Supreme Court. Since the power to legislate abortion now lies with the states, this year's march was supposed to end at the East Front of the U.S. Capitol. However, restrictions on the use of sticks for signage resulted in the route passing by the West Front and ending once again before the Supreme Court.

Mother Olga

After the excitement and exercise of the march, the pilgrims went to Sacred Heart Shrine for dinner and a time of rest and reflection. This parish has a special connection to the Archdiocese of Boston since it was where Cardinal O'Malley served as a young priest.

While eating pizza in the church basement, the pilgrims were joined by the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth, who had traveled from Quincy to participate in the march. Their foundress, Mother Olga Yaqob, then gave a talk in the sanctuary, sharing reflections on the dignity of life and stories of people she has served.

Mother Olga emphasized that the dignity of life applies to all stages of life. Her order serves single mothers and babies in a maternity shelter, men in addiction treatment centers, and elderly people and Alzheimer's patients in nursing homes.

She encouraged the students to pray for each other and to affirm the gift of life in each other.

"I'm here because I want you to leave this march believing in the dignity of your own life," she said.

After Mother Olga's talk, the students were given the opportunity to share their experiences during the march. Then they had a period of Eucharistic Adoration, during which the bus chaplains were available to hear confessions.

Shrine and Sharing

On the morning of Jan. 21, the pilgrims made one more stop: the St. John Paul II National Shrine. Father Riley celebrated Mass for them in the chapel, and then they viewed the museum exhibit before boarding their buses again.

During the long drive back to Massachusetts, the students and chaperones took turns addressing the group on their bus, sharing why they went on the pilgrimage and what they were bringing home from the experience.

Several students admitted that they had originally signed up because they wanted to spend time with their friends. Some said they did not realize what the march was about, or how big it would be until they arrived. But many expressed that they felt strengthened in their pro-life convictions.

One chaperone was touched on a personal level. In high school, she helped a friend obtain an abortion, and years later, she felt guilty for her role in it. She came on the pilgrimage because her son's teacher needed another chaperone. At the Life Fest, she was struck by the DeMaios' testimony of forgiveness and healing after abortion. She said she felt that she was meant to be there, and she no longer felt haunted by helping her friend, who she hopes also found forgiveness.

"What I got out of this weekend is that Jesus will forgive us, and we can start over," she said.

One eighth-grade student shared that her four older sisters are all involved with the pro-life movement.

"I kind of expected it to be a time where I can make it my own and learn on my own. And I feel like that actually happened," she said.

As a middle school student, she said it was "neat to see that people my age can actually make a difference in a way and do something to help the cause."