By Joseph Staniunas
Catholic News Service
RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) — An estimated 7,000 people, including busloads from the Richmond and Arlington dioceses, converged on the state Capitol April 3 in Richmond for the first Virginia March for Life.
On a cool, sunny day, schoolchildren, college students, mothers pushing infants in strollers, fathers holding their children’s hands, men leaning on canes, priests and nuns gathered to stand up for the dignity of human life from conception to natural death.
The rally on the Capitol grounds and walk through downtown Richmond were planned to coincide with the annual veto meeting of the General Assembly to protest attempts during the regular session to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions.
At the Mass before the march, Richmond Bishop Barry C. Knestout praised those who spoke out against those efforts.
“I’m grateful for those who raised their voices in prayer and expressed their concern to elected officials for the devastating impact of this kind of legislation,” the bishop said in his homily to more than 2,500 people gathered in an exhibit hall at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.
Bishop Knestout condemned the “callous indifference” Gov. Ralph Northam has shown in his support for abortion rights, and he urged those in the pro-life movement not to lose heart or to respond to the hostility of abortion advocates with hostility of their own.
“We are disciples of Christ,” he said. “We are called always to love … love for those who oppose us, who may persecute us; love for those who are enemies of our faith and of life. Radical love. The same love that Christ shows for all of his children.”
Bishop Knestout emphasized the importance of prayer in participants’ witness.
“Today, you are in exactly the right place doing what needs to be done, which is pray. Because only God can turn the current culture around,” he said. “We have gone down a dark road in this country and need the light of Christ to lead us.”
The number of abortions is down; more teenagers seem to be turning away from premarital sex, and popular culture seems more receptive to pro-life messages, the bishop noted.
“These facts are all to the good,” he said. “But they should not lull anyone to believe that the cause for life has been victorious. There are many who are determined to perpetuate the culture of death. The anti-life movement continues to push for ever more radical legislation, eliminating any protections to life, slowly undermining the dignity of life.”
The event grew out of an effort by the national March for Life organization to do more to fight attempts by state lawmakers around the country to expand abortion rights.
“We’ve been in conversations with the partnering organizations in Virginia for just under a year, although everything wasn’t formalized until a few months ago,” said spokesperson Matille Thebolt. Those organizations included the Virginia Family Foundation, the Virginia Society for Human Life and the Virginia Catholic Conference.
At a rally before the march, the crowd filled the plaza on the south portico of the Capitol to hear from state and national figures in the pro-life movement. “Life! Life! Life!” they chanted at one point, urged by one speaker to make sure they were loud enough for the governor to hear.
Speakers included Melissa Ohden, a survivor of a saline infusion abortion in 1977; Ryan Bomberger, founder of the Radiance Foundation; Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life; Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation; Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life; and Felicia Pricenor, associate director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, which is the public policy arm of the state’s Catholic bishops.
Pricenor told the crowd that the Northam administration is backing a bill to make abortion a fundamental right in Virginia, saying that it would make for strong families.
“A strong family embraces life; it does not destroy it,” she said. “We must demand that our legislators protect life and conscience rights as we continue our fight against the extreme abortion agenda facing Virginia.”
She urged the crowd to become part of the rapid response teams the state Catholic conference is forming to stay on top of such proposed legislation, and to join her during General Assembly sessions to advocate for life.
As part of the statewide March for Life in Richmond, Arlington Bishop Michael F. Burbidge celebrated a Mass early that morning at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.
“The darkness is in our midst, but we do not despair. Instead, we begin this day in the most perfect way,” Bishop Burbidge said, reminding the congregation that “God will never let our sacrifices or our witness be in vain.”
In Richmond, Elizabeth Belleville, a mother of 12 and parishioner of St. John Church in Warrenton, said: “I came here to protest because we believe all life is sacred from conception.”
Amy Jo Krystek, a parishioner of St. Andrew the Apostle Church in Chincoteague Island, recognized the many pro-life causes. “I recently lost my prayer partner to euthanasia,” she told the Arlington Catholic Herald diocesan newspaper. “It is more than just marching for the unborn. That is our top priority but there is also a significant portion of the population that we are disposing of that is very valuable.”
Kay School, whose husband, Michael, is the director of the Office for Evangelization in Richmond, brought her family. “As a family we feel it’s important to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church and show the dignity of all people, that it is wrong to end life, especially of the unborn who don’t have a voice,” she said.
“It is important for us to say it together as a family, and it’s nice to see the kids forming their own opinions about the quality of life and how important it is,” she added.
Amara Davidson of Bishop Sullivan Catholic High School in Virginia Beach was one of an estimated 1,100 Catholic school students from the Richmond Diocese participating.
“People are so pro-choice now, and everyone’s kind of getting beat down about it,” she told The Catholic Virginian, Richmond’s diocesan newspaper. “I think it’s important that we all come together and know that you’re not alone.”
Julie Marquez of York County had plenty of company as she waited for Mass to begin — her daughter-in-law, Martha Marquez, and four grandchildren. Julie Marquez got pregnant when she was 15 and still in high school. Though she knew it would be difficult, she kept the baby.
“His dad was in my life,” she said. “It was something that we would not have changed. I continued on to finish school, and there was always a struggle. We weren’t a wealthy family but we always managed to make ends meet and continue in life.”
Martha Marquez said her own mother inspired her to get involved in the pro-life movement.
“It’s just sad that now you can abort if you want to and don’t want to deal with the pain,” she said, looking at her 9-month-old son, Mateo.
She had a medical problem when she was pregnant with him, a problem that would have led many women to seek an abortion.
“You can deliver, baby can survive, mother can be taken care of, and that’s what I want to show and tell my story,” she said.
After the march, people were invited to attend “Richmond 101,” an educational program to learn about the legislative process in Virginia and how to get involved.
One of the speakers was Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference. He offered tips on how to navigate the process during Virginia General Assembly’s sessions, telling attendees things move quickly. “To advocate, use email, social media, phone calls and personal visits,” he said.
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Staniunas writes for The Catholic Virginian, newspaper of the Diocese of Richmond. Contributing to this story was Elizabeth A. Elliott, a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.