Auntie’s been marching…

One of the penalties of being British on a visit to America is that, whenever it rains, some one is bound to say “Did you bring this weather with you?” or “Makes you feel right at home, I guess?” and I got plenty of that standing in the steadily pouring rain with the crowds at the March for Life this week. But it was worth every moment. The March is impressive: vast numbers of mostly young people, a great sense of a hearty movement, lots of solidarity.

This is a movement which isn’t going to go away. President Obama was foolish as well as nasty in his dismissive message which merely repeated his idea that aborting babies is somehow good for women: he sounded callous and mean-spirited. It won’t do. America is having a massive re-think on abortion, and you can sense that this is a great national debate which is stirring hearts and minds and causing re-thinks and anguish, hope, embarrassment, and prayer by turns.

For many Catholics, the March is frankly a celebration of faith and values. It was interesting to note that many of those attending described themselves as “pilgrims” and even wore badges or backpacks to that effect. One heard announcements such as “Would the pilgrim group from St so-and-so parish come to the bus now?” or hear people saying “Yeah, I’ve been on this pilgrimage every year”. In this spirit, Catholic schools, colleges and parishes bring their own banners, and the young people chant slogans which include the college name or the name of their town or suburb. Some of these are puzzling to the outsider, with nicknames and initials and references to football teams or college traditions that are all part of a congenial code.

Clergy and members of religious orders abound at the March for Life – some are very impressive – Franciscans in patched mud-spattered habits of brown or grey, leading cheery groups of young people, nuns with damp veils and backpacks, parish priests in soaking rain jackets shepherding their soaking but chattering flocks with banners saying “Defend life!”.

There is a danger that the March could be dismissed as just a Catholic jamboree. As such, I saw a couple of slightly fringe groups – for example, handing out rather odd holy pictures, or standing by the side of the road chanting “Say the Rose-ah-ree! Mary tells us to say the rose – ah – ree!” over and over again. But that is not what most of Washington’s legislators would have seen, and not typical of the march and rally as a whole. Most marchers were young, community-minded, educated, likeable, sane, and knowledgeable about the issues at stake. There is an increasing confidence in the pro-life movement’s track record of caring for young mothers, offering practical support and help to women in desperate need, and giving genuine care to troubled people on a scale that abortionists and Planned Parenthood cannot ever begin to match.

It was touching for this British participant to see men removing their hats when the national anthem was announced, and to see young and old solemnly placing their hands on their hearts as it was sung. It was moving to hear the American voices solemnly affirming loyalty to the flag and to “one nation, under God”. It was good to hear politicians affirming their commitment to the cause of protecting human life and to making it clear that this would be translated into practical action in the public sphere.

My verdict: this is a genuine community movement, it connects with the hearts and souls of vast numbers of Americans, it speaks to the deepest values of humankind and it is tackling the greatest issue that faces us as we stumble towards some kind of vision of civilisation for the 21st century. March on, America’s marchers for life – you are needed, you are on the side of right, you are on-message, and under God you will prevail.