Catholics Come to DC to Pray and Witness for Life in Huge Numbers

By Susan E. Wills

One important but studiously avoided reason pro-abortionists feel "under siege" is the presence of massive number of young people at pro-life events, such as the gathering of Catholic youth at the Verizon Center in Washington, DC, in advance of the March for Life.

Despite stinky weather impeding travel from many parts of the country, Catholic pilgrims from all over the United States gathered in Washington to take part in liturgies, conferences, and youth rallies January 21-23, in advance of the March for Life. The enthusiasm and numbers of Catholic pilgrims is, of course, a great blessing and is evidence of the continuing strength and vitality of the pro-life movement (and a vivid contrast to graying abortion advocates).

Their numbers also create logistical problems for the Archdiocese of Washington—host to many events—and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (“Basilica”) where the all-night prayer Vigil for Life began in 1979, in the Basilica’s Byzantine-Romanesque Crypt Church. By word of mouth, the Vigil for Life soon outgrew the confines of the Crypt and the Vigil Opening Mass had to be moved to the Great Upper Church, with seating for 7,000 and Standing Room Only space for 12,000.

But for years now, thousands of pilgrims above the 12,000 limit could not physically squeeze into the Basilica (although it is the largest Catholic church in North America and among the 10th largest churches in the world), so solutions had to be found to accommodate all the Catholics who came to DC to pray as well as march.

The Basilica scheduled many Masses throughout Sunday and Monday morning for all the Catholic pilgrims visiting Washington for the March for Life. Over the two days, total attendance at Masses alone was 36,000 worshippers! Over 40 bishops (including four cardinals and the Vatican’s Apostolic Nuncio), around 350 priests, 70 deacons, and 650 seminarians took part in these liturgies at the Basilica.

Following the Opening Mass on Sunday evening—at which Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop of Galveston-Houston and Chair of the USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, was the principal celebrant and homilist—many hundreds of pilgrims spent the entire night in prayer in the Crypt Church or in one of the other 70 of so “side chapels” in the Basilica. Following the National Rosary for Life from 10 to 11 p.m., Holy Hours began with Byzantine Night Prayer.

Seminaries from California to Massachusetts vie each year for the privilege of leading devotions between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m. The Vigil concluded with a 7:30 a.m. Closing Mass, at which Cardinal-elect Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and President of the USCCB, was this year’s principal celebrant and homilist. The homilies of both Church leaders are posted at

Elsewhere in DC, Monday morning events began at dawn with the opening of the Verizon Center and the DC Armory, the largest indoor venues in the area. They accommodate 20,000 and 10,000 Catholic students, respectively, from the Archdiocese of Washington and dioceses across the country for pre-March youth rallies and Mass at which Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington and Cardinal DiNardo were the principal celebrants.

It’s not only the Basilica that faces the problem of space. Together, these youth venues are still not large enough to meet the demand for tickets—over 40,000 were requested by dioceses on behalf of their students. Another 5,000 students heard pro-life talks and attended Mass in local parishes.

Because of the high demand for seats at the Vigil’s Opening Mass and for tickets to the Monday morning Youth Rallies from the neighboring Arlington (Virginia) Diocese, Bishop Paul Loverde decided several years ago to host evenings of prayer in now two locations in the diocese, attended by an additional 5,000 teens. These “Life is Very Good” events featured Mass, a keynote speaker, and a concert, and concluded with a Holy Hour of Adoration.

The goals of these Catholic liturgies and events are many: to thank God for the great gift of human life; to beg his protection for the lives of unborn children through the enactment of just laws and policies; to pray for the conversion, healing, and peace of all those who have been involved in an abortion decision or in providing abortions; to ask God to change the hearts and minds of those who hold sway in our government and culture over the beliefs and behaviors of the nation’s children, so that all Americans will come to recognize, and fight to uphold, the inherent dignity and right to life of every human being; and to empower teens and young adults to take up this tremendous task of transforming the culture and changing our laws with all the energy, idealism, and fresh ideas about communicating the message that they possess.

Since 1990, Georgetown University Students for Life has hosted the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life. It took place this year on Sunday, January 22, opening with a keynote address by Archbishop Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Philadelphia. The Archbishop is recognized as one of America’s most eloquent defenders of human life, and this address is no exception. See

Lastly, the new Roman Missal published in 2011 contains the newly approved “Mass for Giving Thanks to God for the Gift of Human Life.” It is one of the only two Masses that are to be celebrated on January 22 (or Jan. 23rd when the 22nd falls on a Sunday), but it can be celebrated on weekdays throughout the year, especially in conjunction with pro-life conferences and events. Its prayers are a great gift to the Church in the United States, one that we hope will inspire all Catholics to active service on behalf of vulnerable lives for years to come.

Susan Wills is Assistant Director for Education & Outreach in the USCCB Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities.