Pat Kern knew the 2009 National March for Life was going to be a big event when she first entered the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., the afternoon of Jan. 21.
It was 5 p.m., more than two hours before the annual vigil Mass for life, and the basilica was almost full. It has a capacity of about 16,000. Kern and others from South Carolina were lucky to find a seat in a side chapel.
“I was in awe of the Mass at the basilica,” Kern said. “I had been on the march three or four times back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I never saw anything like this.”
Kern is a member of St. Philip Neri Mission in Fort Mill. She was one of about 250 adults and youth from the Diocese of Charleston who made the journey to the march. Some left early on Jan. 21 and arrived that evening, while others drove all night to arrive the morning of Jan. 22.
This year’s crowd was estimated at more than 200,000. Attendees from South Carolina said they saw a renewed fervor for bringing an end to abortion, and an inspiring surge in the number of young Catholics attending the event.
“We saw a wonderful, wonderful group of spirited youth both at the youth rally on Jan. 22, and at the march,” Kern said. “I kept thinking that is our next generation, and they will help us to carry this on. Sometimes you feel like a voice in the wilderness, and seeing all of these committed people reinforced my faith.”
Valerie Baronkin, of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Mauldin, has participated in every national life march except one since 1991. She said this year’s event combined an overall feeling of hope and urgency.
“They had to turn people away from the basilica, and the next morning they had to turn them away from the Verizon Center for the youth Mass and rally on Thursday morning,” she said.
The Verizon Center holds about 20,000. People who could not get into those venues were able to go to Mass at alternate locations.
“I would say about 70 percent of the people we saw were youth. Definitely the culture is changing,” Baronkin said. “It’s pretty inspiring to see the dedication of people. Some people had to travel 24 hours to get to the march.”
She said part of the urgency was the result of the inauguration of President Barack Obama just two days prior. Many in the movement are concerned because President Obama has publicly supported the pro-choice side of the abortion debate.
“I was just pleased at the positive message people got from the march,” Baronkin said. “A lot of people were very disillusioned with the election, because even though there are a lot of good things about our new president, people feel there is now just a threat to the culture of life. I think there’s a lot of hope that we might be able to change his mind.”
Cardinal Justin Regali of Philadelphia, who delivered the homily at the vigil Mass, urged people to pray for President Obama to change his perspective on life issues.
Paul and Hilda Meisner of St. Joseph Church in Columbia were emotionally moved by the huge crowds.
“It took 30 minutes just for the priests, bishops and seminarians to process in for the Mass at the basilica and the youth rally,” Meisner said. “It was something to see all these Catholics, clergy, and religious and lay people, coming out strong for prayerful unity. The size and magnitude of the march itself was unreal … people as far as the eye could see on the National Mall.”
Mrs. Meisner was struck by the reverence of the young people at the Masses.
“They were genuflecting before Communion, falling on their knees after they received, so quiet and reflective in prayer,” she said. “I have confidence after attending this march. We have to unite in prayer, stand for life and show unity in this issue.”
Kathy Shaw, of Our Lady of the Hills Church in Columbia, rode a bus to the march with her husband and other Catholics from the Midlands. She went to the 2005 march, and said she attended this year because she was concerned about the fate of pro-life efforts around the nation.
Shaw was amazed by the crowds at the Masses and the march itself. She talked to many people who were attending for the first time because they are concerned about the future of the movement.
The abundance of clergy and religious present, and the many different faiths represented were inspiring, Shaw said.
“The Catholic Church has kind of taken the lead on this issue from day one,” she said, “but I saw people of all faiths and denominations: Jewish, Baptist, evangelicals. I think the concern for life is becoming universal. Other important issues like the economy lose all meaning if we don’t stand firm in the belief that unborn babies have the right to be born.”