By FATHER PAUL A. BURKE, Special Contributor | Published March 17, 2005
When Our Lady of Mercy High School opened in 2000, a mission statement was written to emphasize the school’s commitment to upholding “the sacred dignity of every human person.” A belief in the sanctity of life is at the very heart of the school.
Every student must complete hours in pro-life work as part of the school’s Christian service component. The time is spent in crisis pregnancy centers, at prayer vigils and marches, in baby clothing drives and visits with members of Congress. For the first four years, students participated in local events commemorating the right to life on Jan. 22.
However, in 2005 for the first time OLM students descended upon Washington, D.C., for the annual Mass and March for Life in the nation’s capital. Wearing red sweatshirts with the caption “Mercy for Life,” students and chaperones braved biting cold and snow to join thousands of other people in taking a powerful stand for the sanctity of human life.
The pilgrimage came about because of the commitment of many parents and friends. This year was especially significant given the fact that Pope John Paul II designated it the “Year of the Eucharist.” Inspired by the words of Jesus in the Gospel of St. John, “I came that you might have life,” OLM students prayed that the culture of death might be replaced by a civilization of life and love.
Departing for Washington in the early hours of Jan. 20, the group was filled with anticipation on the chartered bus. Students and chaperones became acquainted with one another. After several rosaries and Chaplets of Divine Mercy, videos and music, sleep and snacks, the spectacular monuments of Washington were finally on the horizon. The first stop was the hotel to get freshened up for the days ahead. Once everyone was settled, a Mass was celebrated to invoke the blessing of God on the group’s pilgrimage.
In a few short days, the students and chaperones experienced the great beauty of much of the capital. A guided tour of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception gave the students an appreciation of the Catholic faith and its devotion to the Blessed Mother. Among the other stops along the way were the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, the Smithsonian Museums and Holocaust Museum. Having visited the Holocaust Museum, one student likened abortion to a “silent holocaust.” The impact of the visit was clear.
The right to life activities began at the National Shrine. Two hours prior to the Mass for Life, the basilica was full. People were crowded in pews and side chapels, in aisles and corners, coming from all over the country to pray for life. Cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons and seminarians formed a long procession in preparation for the Mass.
The celebrant was Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, chairman of the Pro-Life Activities Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington welcomed the pilgrims to the nation’s capital. Both were visibly moved by the number of young people at the Mass.
In his homily Cardinal Keeler said, “We are joined yet again in our pilgrimage for life, pausing in this holy place to pray for an end to the terrible evil spawned that 22nd day of January, 1973. It was then that a few men sworn to uphold our nation’s Constitution shamefully abused that guarantee of human and civil rights by denying to the most vulnerable of all humanity the most fundamental right of all. It was an incredible distortion of justice. It meant the denial of the first of all human rights, and to vulnerable innocents. A tragedy and a grave sin. Thirty-two years later, the evil of Roe v. Wade persists, the blood of innocents continues to stain our Constitution, and the loss of more than 40 million unborn children should haunt our national consciousness . . . The evil must end. It must end soon. And we are here to affirm that, with God’s grace, we must be instruments of its ending.” These powerful words touched the hearts of those who had come to the basilica to pray for life.
The following day, prior to the march, another powerful Mass was celebrated, not in a grand basilica but in a huge stadium, the M.C.I. Center in downtown Washington. Tens of thousands of young people praying and praising God were welcomed by Cardinal McCarrick. Father Andrew Fisher, a priest of the Diocese of Arlington, Va., challenged the marchers to stand firm in the cause of life and to pray and work for an end to the pervasive culture of death. Now, the group from Mercy was fired up to brave the cold and begin the March for Life. This was the highlight for which the students had eagerly waited.
Hundreds of thousands of people, led by colorful banners, began the march at the Ellipse to the Supreme Court, where the death sentence was handed down to millions of unborn children. Among those who gathered for the march was a group of women who had abortions and who now offered their prayers and efforts to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The march was powerful—what an awesome sight, to look back as far as the eye could see and view the vast crowds united together to pray for the unborn.
The long journey home was a fulfilling one, with the students knowing they had “heard and seen” the Gospel of Life. To commemorate the first pilgrimage to Washington, the students presented the school with a picture of Pope John Paul II blessing the faithful with the Blessed Sacrament: “I came that you might have life.” A fitting tribute established to the man who has offered his life in testimony to the Gospel of Life and the love that is at the heart of the Eucharist. This pilgrimage would not have been possible had it not been for the support of so many friends of Our Lady of Mercy High School.
Father Paul Burke is the chaplain at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fairburn.