SAN FRANCISCO — In 2005, the first year of the Walk for Life West Coast, 7,000 pro-life marchers in downtown San Francisco confronted a counterdemonstration of about 1,000 protesters, drawing a strong police presence.
This year, an estimated 50,000 pro-lifers converged on the city Jan. 26 to mark the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling legalizing abortion. They marched through city streets past about 100 opposing demonstrators waving signs and demanding abortion rights. The mood among pro-lifers was enthusiastic and relaxed, energized by the presence of Catholic leaders, leading pro-life activists and a deep-blue California sky.
The sharp increase in pro-life marchers raised spirits after the 2012 campaign season featured partisan battles over federal funding of Planned Parenthood and dire warnings from abortion-rights supporters that Roe could be overturned if a Democratic president was not in place to appoint future justices.
“There are those who celebrate this ruling, while others mourn it,” acknowledged Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco during the Mass celebrated at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption before the walk. There, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, 14 bishops and a large number of priests and women religious gathered with lay Catholics from across the West Coast to prepare for the day’s events and seek strength from the Eucharist.
Archbishop Cordileone referenced the day’s Scripture readings during a homily that recalled the commissioning of the first Christians who faced daunting challenges as they brought the gospel of life to a “dark world.”
Today, many Americans view the gift of fertility as a “disease,” noted Archbishop Cordileone, and the symptoms of a pervasive culture of death suggest “we are up against cosmic forces.”
“But we can take heart,” he said, from the example of Sts. Timothy and Titus. They testified to the courage of the first Christians, who “set forth on the Great Commission the Lord has given us to make disciples of all the nations.”
By mid-day, a vast crowd had gathered for the pre-march rally at Civic Center Plaza, before heading down Market Street to Justin Herman Plaza. Featured speakers included Archbishop Cordileone, Archbishop Vigano, the Rev. Clenard Childress, director of L.E.A.R.N., the largest African-American pro-life group in the U.S., actress Jennifer O'Neill and members of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign.
It was the first year that Archbishop Cordileone, installed in 2012 as archbishop of San Francisco, played a leading role in the Walk for Life. But he began attending the march back in 2008, while still an auxiliary bishop in San Diego and before his subsequent three-year appointment as the bishop of Oakland.
“In 2008, the walkers numbered about 20,000. Last year’s walk drew over 40,000 participants,” Archbishop Cordileone told the Register.
“The pro-life message,” he said, is “filling the void that secular society creates when it excludes God, morality and sensitivity to the beauty of human life.”
The event drew huge numbers of young people, from elementary-school students to 20-something professionals. They are especially “receptive to the walk's message that abortion hurts women and that women deserve better than abortion,” suggested the archbishop.
Help for Women
The destructive impact of abortion on women has remained a central theme of the Walk for Life since its inception, with those who have undergone abortions testifying to the grief that shadowed their fateful decisions to end the lives of their unborn children, while other speakers at the event often challenged efforts to dismiss the impact of post-abortion syndrome.
“We are all about getting resources to women in need, especially those in crisis pregnancies,” said Eva Muntean, the co-chair of the Walk for Life, who noted that a number of pro-life outreach groups provide materials during the pre-march rally, including Rachel’s Vineyard, Silent No More, Project Rachel, Gabriel Project and 40 Days for Life.
“From the beginning, I loved the mission of this walk: The focus was on women. The approach the organizers wanted was non-confrontational, emphasizing that women often choose abortion because they feel they have no other choice,” said Sally Brien Holper, the president of the Joanne Pang Foundation, which promotes the collection of umbilical cord blood for medical treatment.
Holper said she witnessed the struggles of women dealing with crisis pregnancies while serving as a longtime volunteer at Birthright. Such women “felt lost and abandoned” and needed compassionate care and help considering other options to abortion, she told the Register.
Archbishop Vigano, the first papal nuncio to attend the Walk for Life, read a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI that called on pro-life activists “to witness the most precious gift that God has given us: the gift of human life … made in his image and likeness.”
Amid “what has been called by many a culture of violence and death,” the Holy Father urged the marchers in San Francisco to uphold “the inviolable dignity of each member of the human family … especially the smallest and the most defenseless of our brothers and sisters,” and help secure “a more just and compassionate human society.”
The night before the Walk for Life, the Sisters of Life offered a similar message during a vigil program that included Mass, confession, a talk and Eucharistic adoration.
“Jesus came to forgive us from our sins and to free us from all that binds us so that we can live in the freedom of the children of God. When we know our identity, we are able to share that with others,” Sister of Life Bethany Madonna Burwell told the Register, summarizing the message of the vigil organizers.
Indeed, while speakers at the Washington-based March for Life often highlight legislative and legal goals needed to secure the right to life for the unborn child, the Walk for Life primarily focused on the nation’s urgent need for spiritual and moral renewal.
“Across the culture we need protection of families, of the pre-born and of religious liberty. We have to find the vehicle and mechanism to educate the people,” said Bishop Robert Vasa of Santa Rosa, a diocese that borders San Francisco.
“Teachers, bishops and priests can't presume that the faithful have heard the message, or, if they have, that it has … penetrated their hearts,” said Bishop Vasa. “We have to be relentless teachers.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.