There’s been a March for Life in Washington for almost 40 years. While other European cities have had pro-life marches, now the capital of Europe has had its first such march.
The March for Life in the European capital, Brussels, made its way along the streets March 28, a silent, peaceful witness. The majority of participants were young and were from Belgium and other European countries, each carrying a red or white rose.
One of the young organizers was an American, Elizabeth Hickson, who has been doing pro-life work in the United States and other countries. Hickson spoke about the event with Register correspondent Kathleen McCann.
How did a young American become so involved in organizing the first pro-life March in Brussels?
At the end of last summer, I went to Brussels to help with a pro-life project, and when it fell through, I decided to stay anyway and work as a volunteer with the poor and still try to do pro-life work.
I rented a room and worked every day of the week with the poor, mostly with the Missionaries of Charity. In the evenings, I would attend different youth and prayer groups and meetings in order to build relationships and make friends and for the opportunity to bring up life issues. A friend told me about Michel De Keukelaere, a law student from Leuven who wanted to do a march for life in Brussels. The next day I met with him and another student, Ann Chantal. Their courage and faith touched me, and I said I wanted to help. We decided then that even though it all seemed impossible, God could do anything with our Yes.
We put prayer and sacrifice first from the beginning. We sent out e-mails and letters to many people to ask them to pledge to pray with and for us during the next few months for God’s grace to touch people’s hearts and for them to live and bring back a culture of life. We must speak and be the voice of the unborn and the voice of hope and healing for the mothers hurt by abortion. We must let compassion overcome our fear, and then act and speak the truth in love.
How was the March for Life conceived?
Michel got involved in pro-life through his best friend, Antony Burckhardt. Over the past few years, they have been putting out a pro-life magazine together at their university. But they wanted to do more, and Michel came up with the idea for the march. I saw his gift as a leader and his faith, humility and perseverance throughout the months before the march.
What is the inspiration for your pro-life work?
Mother Teresa and Msgr. Philip Reilly, who founded the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants. Msgr. Reilly has been involved with pro-life work from the very beginning, and he started a peaceful prayerful movement that is all over the world now. His name may be unfamiliar to many, but his work has had a profound impact and influenced many other pro-life leaders and organizations today. Anywhere you see the Helpers or the Helpers’ approach in the world, you will see people coming back to and living the faith, especially young people.
How did you fund your missionary and pro-life work?
Usually I work as a floral designer or artist, and then save up money to pay for my trips. If I raise any money, it goes directly to one of my orphanages or sponsored projects. This time in Brussels, I came back and worked at Christmas and saved up enough to support myself. The Brochier family in Belgium and other families opened their homes to me to stay in Brussels the two months before the march. I fell in love with the Belgian people and learned a lot from them. This time in Belgium was such a blessing for me.
What were some of the challenges you faced organizing the March for Life? Were there signs of hope along the way?
We had no funding, but that did not worry us; rather, it was the other lack of support and the closed doors we encountered when we mentioned pro-life. We received a few donations that paid for the march and the fliers. All the other expenses we paid for ourselves. Michel and the four other organizers are all full-time students with classes most every day and papers to write, so they made many sacrifices trying to do so much.
The two months before the march were spent nonstop on trains and buses, passing out fliers, speaking, doing debates and interviews. We didn’t get much sleep, but there was lots of praying and laughing. We had many different angels who came just when we needed them, like the Defaux family, who worked around the clock on all the technical issues, banners, websites, videos, etc. Then there was Andre Dumont, the Brochier family, and the mother, Carine, who helped us all along the way.
Another angel, Catherine, gave us her office and a place to stay where we would often finish work in the middle of the night. A few weeks before the march, all the perseverance started to show in beautiful ways, and people came together. Different groups that had not agreed in the past now joined us. We received hundreds of e-mails from the U.S.; also friends and students from Catholic schools and universities, like Christendom College, wrote their support. Some of the students and faculty there started doing Eucharistic adoration every day and prayed Rosaries and fasted for us.
In Brussels, a 17-year-old girl, Marie Emmanuel, gave so much of her time helping after school. One day she went with two girls into the streets and got 30 shops to hang up our posters in an hour.
Michel had said all along that if the march saved one baby and one mother it was all worth it. Well, a few weeks before the march, a girl saw us on Facebook and then our website. She wrote back and forth with us and then decided to keep her baby.
The tension and suspense continued right up until the hour of the march. The police permit and the letter from the mayor that confirmed permission for us to do the march did not come until four days before. We entrusted everything to our Blessed Mother. Sometimes, after long days and no sleep, we’d walk home through the streets of Brussels singing, “Je vous salue, Marie, pleine de grace …” the Hail Mary in French. In the end, we really didn’t care if only a few people came; we wanted only to touch peoples’ hearts, to bring the light and the culture of life and plant seeds.
On the feast of St. Joseph, nine days before the march, we had several hours of adoration for the people who had been praying for us all along. At one point, the police changed the location and route of the march. We visited the new starting place, the steps of a church called St. Jacques sur Coudenberg. We were nervous to go meet the priest and ask him if we could use the steps of his church and also the power source from the church for the speaker system. As we came to the door, we saw a sign that said it was the only church in Brussels that for the past 10 years had been saying Masses for life. The priest was so kind to us and gave us all that we needed.
Who were your intercessors for the march?
We prayed especially to John Paul II and Mother Teresa and also to King Baudouin, whose canonization cause is in process. You know the story of King Baudouin, who abdicated the Belgian throne in April of 1990, rather than be forced to sign abortion into law in his country. And we entrusted all to our Mother Mary.
What inspired the student organizers?
The writings and words of Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II and the example of the U.S. and its young people. Michel decided that the march would not have any political association and that religious and nonreligious were invited to stand together for life. He hoped also to form a neutral platform, where many organizations could come together despite their differences and be united for the end to abortion.
What support did you receive from other pro-life organizations or the Church?
We did not ask them to give us money. We just asked that they would support us and join us on this central issue, and to speak out. In the beginning, the former bishop of Brussels and other bishops would not support us. So we prayed for them.
Then, around Christmas, a miracle and confirmation for us organizers happened. The Pope appointed Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard the new bishop of Brussels. Michel already knew the bishop and his courage for standing up for life. We were overjoyed.
Was there any change after the recently appointed Archbishop of Malines-Brussels, André-Mutien Léonard, was installed?
Yes, there were immediate changes, and it gave us such consolation. The bishop came to one of the debates/talks that Anthony led at the University of Namur. Bishop Léonard defended us and let us pass out fliers at the cathedral, even for his opening Masses, which many of the priests and parishes would not let us do. At his opening Mass, I gave him our flier, and he put his arms around us like a father, made jokes and encouraged us; then he held the flier and had all of us stand with him and said, “Now, let’s take a picture.” We were so grateful for this picture, and it really helped our cause. In the end, many of the pro-life organizations and other family groups put their differences aside and came together and joined us. A great unity took place when all the bishops of Belgium signed on to support us in the last few weeks. We know this amazing communion was the result of all the people praying.
What was the day of the march like? How did the march unfold?
When the day finally arrived, we felt so much grace. We were a little nervous, but mostly excited. A priest started adoration of the holy Eucharist for us in the morning and kept it going till the end of the march.
Young people started showing up from every direction, as well as the media. We had hundreds of white and red roses being passed out. A few of us went back into the church and knelt down before Our Lady; we again gave it all to her and asked the Holy Spirit to give us the right words. I cannot put into words the joy we felt as we walked out the door of the church. We never dreamed of such a crowd. Michel said into the microphone, “Welcome to the first March for Life in Brussels!” There were such cheers and smiles and roses being waved all around. Young people one after another took the microphone and said which country they came from. Then speakers came up from France and the Netherlands. Then the crowd parted: There was our beloved Bishop Léonard. He asked us if he could say something, and he then read out a letter from the Pope to us, encouraging us and telling us that he was praying for our march.
There were groups from Germany, France, the Netherlands, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Poland and Belgium. The police estimated the crowd at over 1,700. They said they thought only 300 would come. From the church, we walked to the Palace of Justice, the most important court building in Brussels. It was a totally silent march … silent for the child that has no voice, a powerful moving river of love.
If we speak the truth, grace comes with it. The main banner in the front said, “Women Deserve Better Than Abortion”; we held it and our roses and took small steps. Buses and trams passed; our message was clear, and our silence reached them. We saw eyes tearing up and shock as people watched us pass in slow motion.
We reached the Palace of Justice, and the police chief smiled and told us that people were still coming. We took the banner up the steps of the Palace of Justice and laid it down. One by one, our roses came to rest on the steps of justice.
Then, a beautiful voice and song penetrated the silence. We had met a girl a few days before, a student who had written and composed a pro-life song. Then Bryan Kemper, who founded Stand True Ministries, spoke. He had been the first to respond to a letter I sent out before Christmas. He said he would come and speak for free, which gave us great encouragement. He arrived with two girls from the U.S. three days before the march and said, “I am here to serve.” He was like a dad to us, and was just what we needed.
Then, the police informed us that we had to end an hour early because the crowd had grown so large, so we had to cut several speakers, and the remainder had only two minutes to speak. Finally, Michel De Keukelaere spoke and announced that the next March for Life will be March 27, 2011. There was more music and smiles everywhere, even [from] the police.
People swarmed around and told us how this had touched them, helped them and changed them, and we are still getting these letters and e-mails.
Much later, we went to the chapel and thanked heaven and our Mother. Walking home that night, we sang the Hail Mary in French, again and again, like many so many times before.
What was the main accomplishment of this year’s march, and what is the hope for next year’s?
Many who had been afraid lost the fear. Young people from all over are writing and saying they want to get involved and that it gave them hope. Priests and religious wrote that they want to get involved. Some have written that they are ashamed they did not support us and have kept silent on these issues in the past and will join us now.
Our goal will stay the same: We will continue to try to bring awareness in a loving, peaceful way and to tell the media and the governments that we are a new generation for a culture and society for life. We love our countries and our women, and abortion is deeply wounding both of them.
We believe that women deserve better. Any society or culture that uses the words “abortion of human life,” “freedom” and “a woman’s choice” in the same sentence is one that degrades women. It is a society that does not know the heart, soul, courage and resilience of women — of a mother — no matter the circumstances.
When a woman is told that she carries an innocent life. … When she is told the truth that she is already a mother, that it is beautiful and positive, abortion will be rare. When women are given help and support to make a choice for life and not destruction, and when society stops the prejudice against pregnancy and the fertility of women, abortion will be even more rare. Again, we must let our compassion and love for the women and girls of our countries overcome our fear to speak the truth. If we are strong in hope, then faith and love can return to our countries, and we can build again a culture of life.
But most especially if we Catholics would live and teach the whole pro-life message with our actions, with our lives, without shame, people’s hearts would change. If after receiving the living, loving Jesus in the holy Eucharist, we would give birth to him in our places of work, in the marketplace, in our homes and extended families, the culture of life would be restored. If we were not ashamed so often to give birth to him in the world, abortion and the culture of death would end. If we do not show that Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life, how will our brothers and sisters, caught in this culture of death, learn and know the way and understand the truth and be pro-life?
We have big hopes for next year, but first we will spend some time in thanksgiving, rejoicing and prayer.
Kathleen McCann writes from Washington, D.C.
For more information see www.28march2010.be.