This year, once again, tens of thousands of pro-lifers marched on Washington, D.C. It’s an unprecedented event. For the past several years, the crowd has often been estimated at anywhere from 100 to 300,000. It’s the equivalent of a yearly repeat of Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, in the dead of winter. Though we went to press with last week’s issue on the eve of the March, the event is so important that we felt it warrants front-page coverage even if that coverage comes in the afterglow.

WASHINGTON — The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception sits on a hill on the campus of The Catholic University of America. Like the ancient Temple of Jerusalem, the basilica, with its blue dome and tower, is easily recognizable and can be seen at a distance.

The church was a busy place the night of Jan. 21; in fact, it was the spiritual headquarters of the American pro-life movement.

It was the eve of the annual March for Life, marking the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision, and people were here for the vigil Mass for Life.

Like the march, everything about the vigil was big. Buses began pulling up in front of the church that afternoon. People rushed through the cold into the shrine to get a seat for the Mass before they were all taken.

Outside, the temperature was in the teens; inside, people fanned themselves with their programs. When pews filled up, many people, including students who traveled from schools around the country, sat on the floor.

It was a good 30 minutes from when the first blast of organ pipes heralded “All Creatures of Our God and King” until the last of the 1,000 men in procession — several cardinals, scores of bishops, hundreds of priests, deacons and seminarians — crossed into the sanctuary. Members of the Knights of Columbus snapped pictures, and women wiped tears from their eyes.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, archbishop of Philadelphia, and the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ pro-life committee, served as principal celebrant and gave the homily.

“One day not long ago, a very influential stem-cell researcher, Dr. Shinya Yamanaka, was humbled when he was looking through a microscope at a human embryo in a fertility clinic,” Cardinal Rigali said. “The glimpse changed his scientific career. ‘When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters,’ said Dr. Yamanaka, 45, a father of two. ‘I thought: We can’t keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way.’”

The cardinal concluded: “If God can use a helpless embryo to change a human heart, he can certainly use us with all our limitations and weaknesses. You are also called to pray for an end to abortion in the United States and throughout the world. Roe v. Wade is incompatible with human dignity. It must not stand. It cannot stand. It will not stand.”

Across the Nation

Samuel Futrals, 53, a seminarian from the Diocese of Lafayette, Ind., participated in the procession. He said he was “awestruck” by the majesty of the liturgy, which lasted nearly three hours.

“It was an awesome experience. Words fail to describe it. I felt like I was in the Lord’s presence in the sense of feeling humble,” he said. “The Holy Spirit is active in the world today.”

Esteban Clemente, 41, rode to Washington from Boston in a bus chartered by the Knights of Columbus; he is a fourth-degree member. He attended all three major events on Jan. 21 and 22 and noted the large number of young people on sleeping bags in the crypt chapel beneath the shrine.

In the center of the chapel was a big-screen television so people who couldn’t get in upstairs could watch the celebration. But the place was so busy and full many couldn’t even find a place to sit.

“I spoke with a group from St. Louis who traveled with two busloads of kids for 24 hours to be here,” Clemente said. “They couldn’t see the Mass but were in the crypt church with no way to even see the closed-circuit television. But they were fine with that. No complaints.”

The week of the March was marked by pro-life activities, with Masses, prayer vigils and rallies taking place across the country.

The weekend before the March, Walk for Life San Francisco drew some 25,000 participants. And in San Diego 700 faithful gathered at St. Joseph’s Cathedral and then prayed the Rosary and sang hymns outside a local abortion clinic.

In Washington, the greatest numbers of supporters of the pro-life movement were young people. They were everywhere: on the sidewalks, in the museums, at the monuments, in restaurants, hotel lobbies and in the pews.

They carried their energy into the Verizon Center downtown on the morning of Jan. 22 for the youth rally and Mass sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington.

The center was packed. Signs posted on the sidewalk outside said the place was filled to capacity — 20,000 people.

Young people filled all three tiers of the auditorium and moved up and down the aisles. The kids identified the schools and groups they belonged to with colored T-shirts and scarves and waved banners while listening to musician Matt Maher.

Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington was the main celebrant of the Mass. Moments before, seminarians from Blessed John XXIII National Seminary in Weston, Mass., were whisked backstage by a publicist to film a welcome message for Pope Benedict XVI, who will visit New York City and Washington in April.

The Mass included a personal message from the Holy Father, read by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the apostolic nuncio to the United States. In the message, the Pope hailed young people for their commitment to life, and said he looked forward to his visit to the United States this spring.

Archbishop Wuerl delighted in the presence of so many young people gathered with him to celebrate “the great gift of life.”

“It was inspiring to be among 25,000 young people at that Mass,” Clemente said. “It made you feel more Catholic, knowing we all share the same faith.”

The most striking moment of the Mass occurred during holy Communion. Nobody talked or took pictures and no cell phones went off. Instead, tens of thousands of Catholics moved toward the sanctuary to receive the Bread of Life.

As the musicians sent everybody from the arena with the closing song, “Go Make a Difference,” the participants went out to flood the National Mall, waving signs that said “Defend Life” or, simply, “Life,” and braved the cold as they marched up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court.

Grass Roots

At a rally prior to the march, organizer Nellie Gray introduced politicians, clergy and activists who addressed the crowds in a windy drizzle.

Gray acknowledged a solid turnout as a means to mobilize the grassroots movement to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“It’s not going to work trying to change this from the top down,” she said. “We’re going to unite the grass roots.”

One speaker has been a consistent presence at the March for eight years, though through written or recorded messages, rather than in person: President George Bush. He lauded those who work for “a culture of life where a woman with an unplanned pregnancy knows there are caring people who will support her; where a pregnant teen can carry her child and complete her education; where the dignity of both the mother and child is honored and cherished.”

His message, broadcast to the rally, was taped that morning at a White House breakfast for some 200 activists, including 50 Christendom College students. Christendom, in Front Royal, Va., is regularly represented at the March by the totality of its student body, between 400 and 500 students.

Among the speakers on the stage, Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., warned that “America’s liberal elites” were “empathy-deficient” when it comes to the unborn, turning around a phrase about Americans made by Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., the Democratic frontrunner for president, in remarks on the presidential campaign trail a few days earlier.

A brief roar of agreement greeted a warning by Sen. David Vitter, R-La., that electing Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., or Obama as president would mean nominees for federal judgeships would be less pro-life than those nominated under President Bush, so “we need to elect a pro-life president.”

Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a Republican candidate for president, downplayed those ambitions to emphasize his experience as an obstetrician, helping bring 4,000 babies into the world. Dozens of “Ron Paul for President” banners held high above the crowd made a point of his political ambitions for him.

Knights of Columbus Supreme Knight Carl Anderson said the Knights, who help organize anti-abortion events around the country, do so because “abortion hurts everyone,” from the unborn child and the parents to doctors and nurses who are compromised by their participation.

“It undermines respect for judges,” he said. “It implicates the taxpayer who pays for it. It coarsens the society that tolerates it.”

(CNS contributed to this report.)

Tucker Cordani is based in

Weston, Massachusetts.