WASHINGTON — "We are marching in the light of God. We are marching in the light of God."
So sang parishioners from the Diocese of Rochester as they trekked along Constitution Avenue toward the Supreme Court Jan. 22 along with hundreds of thousands of pro-life activists in the 41st-annual March for Life.
It’s pretty cold," said Giovanni Figueroa, a first-time marcher who had traveled to the capitol with youths from Holy Apostles and Our Lady of the Americas churches in Rochester.
But like hundreds of others who marched in the Rochester Diocese’s delegation, Giovanni wasn’t going to let the subfreezing temperatures deter him from making a statement about the value of every human life.
"You are trying to make a difference," said the 14-year-old student at Eastridge High School. "Every baby who dies in an abortion could be a great leader in science discovering something."
While groups from Canandaigua, Webster, and Corning cancelled their travel plans in light of hazardous conditions, six buses from across the diocese made the overnight trip Jan. 21 to arrive in time for a Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Bishop Salvatore R. Matano, who walked with the Rochester pilgrims during the March for Life, was not able to concelebrate the early morning Mass because his flight the previous day had been cancelled. But he did arrive in time to greet the Rochester delegation on the steps of the basilica, and shake hands and take photos with the pilgrims, including many who thanked him for coming.
"It’s wonderful to be with you all," he said.
Bishop Matano also concelebrated a mid-morning Mass with Syracuse Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, who served as the Diocese of Rochester’s apostolic administrator prior to Bishop Matano’s Jan. 3 installation.
Sarah Hinkley, who is studying at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, rushed over to the bishop when she saw him on the steps. A native of Lyndonville, Vt., she said she already misses Bishop Matano, who formerly led the Diocese of Burlington, Vt.
"He was really wonderful," Hinkley remarked. "I’ll miss the way he greeted you — always very friendly."
Bishop Matano said he has attended the march every year he has been a bishop.
"It has been part of my ministry for many years now as well as when I was a priest," he said.
He said the presence of so many Rochester pilgrims despite the weather conditions demonstrates the deep faith shared by his new flock.
"We are always here to march as one family in the church," Bishop Matano said. "The lives of children must be protected … as well as the lives of all people."
"We are so pleased with the bishop’s consciousness of the pro-life effort in our diocese," Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator, noted just before the march began. "And we are thrilled with his decision to come to Washington and share this experience with us."
"In addition to the increasingly large number of youth participants … how moving and unifying it was to have our own bishop come down to be with us and actually march in our midst," said Dr. Elissa Sanchez-Speach, president of the Finger Lakes Guild of the Catholic Medical Association. "I don’t think that’s been done for years, if ever. Actions speak louder than words, and to see him in the trenches with the rest of us was really inspiring."
Weather also failed to deter a couple from Worcester, Mass., who drove to Washington after most buses from their state were cancelled.
Setting out from Worcester, Luis Fernández and his wife, Maria Pujals Fernández, drove westward, away from the winter storm that hit the Northeast Jan. 21. The route took them 11 hours to complete — three hours longer than their usual route to Washington.
"We prayed a lot," joked Luis Fernández, a native of Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico. "We felt it was important to do the extra effort and go the extra mile to bear witness. … And it’s a way of getting family together and celebrate life."
His wife was the first to participate in the annual marches because she has a personal connection to the pro-life issue, Fernández added. When Maria’s mother experienced bleeding early in her pregnancy, doctors said that to protect her mother’s life they needed to perform a dilation and curettage (D&C), which would have ended the pregnancy, but her mother refused, said Pujals Fernández. At that point, they could only recommend that she try walking and sent her home, added Pujals Fernández.
"She has such strong faith," she said of her mother, who is now 87. "She started walking … and the bleeding stopped. And nine months later, I was born."
Similar stories were shared by speakers at a rally on the National Mall before the start of the march. Addressing the theme "Adoption: A Heroic Decision," Nicole Peck of the group Silent No More spoke of adopting two boys after being unable to conceive following an abortion she had as a teenager.
"In Jesus, I found hope," she said. "I would never conceive another child. Infertility was my cross to bear. … But you do have a choice America. Choose adoption."
Another speaker, Giovanna Romero of the group Latinos Por la Vida, said Latinos and African-Americans are being targeted by "a culture of death."
"But we are the pro-life generation," she told the thousands of cheering young people from across the country. "We will be held accountable for what we did or did not do to end this genocide."
Speaking also in Spanish, Romero said Latinos must stand up to defend their culture and their families.
"Si se puede (Yes, we can)," she shouted as the crowd chanted along. "Let them hear it all over Latin America. Can I get an ‘Amen’?"
Part of reaching out to a young pro-life generation is staying in touch with supporters year-round through such social-media outreach as the March for Life Facebook and Twitter pages, said Jeanne Monahan, the new president of the March for Life, who during the rally read a tweet from Pope Francis to the marchers.
Social media also enabled anyone who was unable to be physically present at the march to participate through a March for Life app, according to the march’s media center.
But for Lindsey O’Laughlin, the image of personally seeing the throngs of people marching together down Constitution Avenue is one she will never forget.
"That was really powerful," said the 22-year-old senior at Roberts Wesleyan College who traveled on the bus from St. Pius the Tenth Church in Chili.
She founded a Students for Life chapter at the college in her senior year, but this marked the first time she marched.
"It was absolutely worth it," she said of the experience. "Being here with so many people … tells people who work here in D.C. that we’re not going to back down. We’re going to keep fighting for life."
"People can change their minds if you change their perspective," added Dailianny Villanueva, a 15-year-old Hilton High School freshman who traveled with the group from Holy Apostles. "Every life counts."
Rally participants said they have noticed growth in the involvement of young people in the rally and in the pro-life movement. This development represents a dramatic shift, said Tony Joy, a parishioner of Rochester’s Our Lady of Victory Church who has participated in the march 35 times. This year, he brought along his granddaughter, Geianna Joy, a sixth-grader at East Rochester’s St. John Bosco School, who has joined her grandfather or other family members on the march in four previous years.
Joy said that when he first started marching in his 20s, the average age of the marchers was older, and there were few young people like himself. Now, he would estimate the ratio is 100:1 of young people to older people, Joy said.
"It has completely flipped," he remarked. "That has been the most impressive and biggest change over the years."
"I think the young people, the older people are here, religious and regular laity are becoming more and more concerned with the threats to religious freedom and the disrespect for life that is taking place at national and state levels," Armantrout said of why so many people braved the harsh conditions to take part in the march.
Joy attributed the growth in youth participation to Pope John Paul II, who he said made such a connection with younger people.
With respect to this year’s delegation, Joy said he also saw an improvement in the level of organization. He said this year’s march was the first time he could recall in which all the pilgrims from the Diocese of Rochester marched together with one banner.
The contingent also was the biggest he has seen, which Joy said may have been due to Bishop Matano’s announcement that he would join their ranks.
"It was wonderful," he said of this year’s march. "It was nice to see everybody together."