Washington, D.C. — “We shall overcome,” Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan said, invoking not only the late slain Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. but the gospel for which he lived and died. Dolan was in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, near the Catholic University of America. It was packed, at the time, with over 10,000 people, most of them high-school or college students, though including many younger and older persons, too. Most had come on buses from places like Florida and Ohio and New York.
It’s no breaking news that Catholics might be pro-life, but Dolan’s words and confidence seemed to take on a new urgency and opportunity as he spoke them this year. Dolan, the cardinal archbishop of New York and outgoing chair of the bishops’ pro-life office, noted a number of issues, including race and immigration, that threaten the dignity of human life and do violence to the body and soul, community and nation. But there’s a perniciousness so intimate about abortion. About severing a mother from her child. About its being state-sanctioned. About its even being culturally encouraged in ways quite loud, and about the recesses of deep and private pain that is shared by all too many. It’s about an unnecessary deprivation of love, a deprivation that doctors sometimes insist on, even for loving couples who might otherwise be more than ready to take on challenges of love that possible disabilities in a child involve.
“We shall overcome” seemed like a door opened to a renewal, a fresh breeze over an issue on which politics always seems to stand stubbornly firm — people hardened in political loyalties, placards ready-made, euphemisms abounding. Dolan delivered his homily at the annual vigil Mass for life before many of those who had traveled for the January event that is part pilgrimage, part protest, and part celebration of human life. He did so citing the Reverend King’s niece, who believes that her uncle would have marched for the human rights of the unborn, alongside the young people who always fill the nation’s capital to mark the anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade.
This year’s march came on the 50th anniversary of a prophetic clarion call by Pope Paul VI to consider what the sexual revolution might be doing to men and women and marriage and life. Dolan’s “We shall overcome” seemed to be ringing a bell of hope during the first March for Life since a light began to shine on all kinds of darkness in Hollywood and media — and on relationships in all kinds of workplaces and on what would otherwise be casual, promising social occasions that became instead moments of indignity and even violence. His “We shall overcome” on this particular evening seemed to change, through a few familiar, powerful, confident words, the dynamics of our impoverished politics around these most intimate issues. While so often people hear the Church as a place of prohibitions, his was a fatherly offering: There is another way to live. These young people are testimony to it. Come, join us. Be welcome.
To receive the full invitation of Dolan’s declaration, take a moment to consider the scene, if you were not there with us. Year after year, and increasingly, the March for Life attracts young people, and they are joyful. They want something better for themselves and their friends and contemporaries they go to school with but may never meet. They come from Catholic schools and they come from the likes of Harvard — Kelly, a gal from its right-to-life group, had one of the most radiant smiles I encountered during that Thursday. And it is not just the young people. One of the most tender moments I witnessed during Mass was when an older, ailing woman in a wheelchair who participated in the Mass (helping bring up the gifts of bread and wine) was aided by a young woman whom she embraced with the most loving gratitude as they reached her parking spot in front of a row of pews. The message here was love.
The March for Life, which includes politicians and activists — this year, the president and the speaker of the House — isn’t about partisan politics. It isn’t even fully about opposition, though there is certainly clarity and determination and prayerful pleading about what darkness abortion is. It’s about love (the theme this year was “Love Saves Lives”) — wanting better, insisting on better, but, most important, extending a hand to anyone who has been hurt by four decades of this pain inflicted on women and men and a generation that has pierced its own heart in many ways. “We shall overcome” are words for a people in need of hope. “We shall overcome” is confidence that peace and justice will flourish. Even when things seem darkest. And when there is doubt, the faith of the suffering and of the young — fresh and bold, never Pollyannaish — are such remarkable encouragement. Seeing this, standing among them, is believing at the March for Life. Now more than ever.