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 Viganò, 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 Viganò, Rev. Clenard Childress, director of L.E.A.R.N., the largest black pro-life group in the U.S., actress Jennifer O’Neill and members of the Silent No More Awareness Campaign.
Since the first walk, the event has been broadcast live by Eternal Word Television Network to viewers around the country. EWTN also broadcasts the Washington March for Life.
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 Viganò, 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 focuses 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."
Archbishop Viganò’s Apostolic Walk for Life
SAN FRANCISCO — For the first time ever, the apostolic nuncio to the United States joined the lineup of Catholic and pro-life leaders at the annual Walk for Life West Coast, which this year marked the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade in San Francisco.
At the rally preceding the Jan. 26 walk, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, named the Pope’s personal representative to the U.S. in October 2011, read Pope Benedict XVI’s blessing to the crowd of 50,000 pro-lifers gathered at the city’s Civic Center Plaza. Then, the nuncio told his enthusiastic audience, "I feel with you that you are the best of the United States of America."
Archbishop Viganò’s appearance at the walk prompted an expression of gratitude from San Francisco’s newly installed Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. The nuncio told the Register that he has sought out opportunities to familiarize himself with the Church in the United States.
"One of the duties of the mission of the apostolic nuncio and his staff is to provide and offer [information] to the Pope about the situation of the Church in the United States and to present to him suitable candidates to be bishops," Archbishop Viganò said.
"This is a very important responsibility, and, since the country is so large, I try to be present at any occasion or for an important meeting."
Archbishop Viganò recalled a private audience with Pope Benedict on Nov. 7, 2011, just before the nuncio left to take up his duties in Washington. During the meeting, the Pope "told me, ‘You will find some problems in the United States.’ He said that to make me more realistic in some way," the nuncio told the Register.
He arrived in the U.S. days later, in time for the annual November meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, where then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, the conference’s president, rolled out plans for tackling emerging threats to religious freedom.
During Archbishop Viganò’s long career in the Vatican as a diplomat in hot spots like Iraq and Nigeria, the Italian-born archbishop has witnessed an array of political situations that sometimes spark Church-state conflicts.
"Every one of us brings to these gatherings the experience of their years of life and mission. I was affected by my first diplomatic assignment in 1973 in Iraq … before the first Gulf War … [under] the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein," he said during the Jan. 26 interview.
But the ideological struggles that swept through Europe during the 20th century have also informed his present view of Church-state tensions in Western democracies.
"A democracy is not something that is won forever," he said. "As Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict have said, ‘A democracy that is deprived from values very soon will become a dictatorship and a situation of persecution.’"
Notre Dame Address
He expressed similar concerns during a Nov. 4 address at the University of Notre Dame, where he raised the alarm about new political currents in "the great democracies of the world."
"Evidence is emerging which demonstrates that the threat to religious freedom is not solely a concern for non-democratic and totalitarian regimes," he said at Notre Dame. "Unfortunately, it is surfacing with greater regularity in what many consider the great democracies of the world."
Religious persecution is often accompanied by a "reluctance to accept the public role of religion," he said in his address, especially when religious institutions uphold "beliefs that the powerful of the political society do not share."
The Walk for Life, which drew about 100 counterprotesters waving signs that attacked pro-life activists as "fascists," hinted at the polarized politics that increasingly dominate U.S. public life and may result, one day, in measures that dramatically constrain religious freedom.
"During the 20th century, there was democracy in Italy — and at a certain moment, there was a fascist regime," noted Archbishop Viganò, standing close to the stage where Walk for Life speakers addressed the crowd.
Today, he said, "the human values proclaimed in the [International Declaration of Human Rights] after World War II are now being violated in order to create new values."
-- Joan Frawley Desmond
— Joan Frawley Desmond