SAN FRANCISCO — A massive crowd stretching out for a mile in sunny downtown San Francisco showed the growing momentum of the Walk for Life, which celebrated its 10th anniversary and offered new programs for participants from across California and neighboring states.

On Jan. 25, more than 50,000 people gathered in front of San Francisco City Hall, and the diverse crowd included a mix of ages and ethnic and religious groups, with songs and prayer in English and Spanish.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, during his homily at the Mass proceeding the rally, congratulated the young people present for embracing the pro-life movement and for joining the hundreds of lay activists, priests, women and men religious and seminarians at St. Mary’s Cathedral.

The steadily expanding presence of young people at the Walk for Life, he said, underscored a new generation’s awareness that abortion harms rather than helps women.

“Forty years and 58 million abortions later, the very painful truth has come to light: Yes, abortion does hurt women,” said Archbishop Cordileone.

The San Francisco Church leader credited an older generation of pro-life activists with helping to change the nation’s view of abortion and demonstrating “heroic virtue” during past decades when those who challenged the legalization of abortion were stigmatized. Now, he warned the students at the cathedral, they must help enlighten their own peers about the central role of marriage as the sanctuary of life.

“The pro-life movement is about more than saving the life of the baby,” said Archbishop Cordileone.

“It’s especially about connecting that baby to where he or she came from: the mother and the father. …There is no other institution that does that.” 

Archbishop Cordileone is the U.S. bishops’ point man on the defense and promotion of marriage, and he emerged as a national leader on the issue after spearheading the successful campaign to place Proposition 8 on the 2008 ballot for California voters.

Proposition 8 effectively banned same-sex “marriage” from the Golden State. However, a landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision found that the citizens’ group that stepped up to defend Proposition 8 after state officials refused to do so did not have legal “standing” in the case, and a lower-court decision overturning the law, therefore, was allowed to stand.

Last year, the state Legislature also passed a law allowing nurse practitioners, physicians' assistants and midwives to provide a type of early abortion, highlighting California’s strong pro-abortion trend. 

Even so, the abortion measure did not generate the same protracted and divisive debate as Proposition 8, and during his homily at the cathedral, Archbishop Cordileone urged the young Catholics at the cathedral to stay “close to Christ” as they seek to present the truth about marriage.

“Future generations will understand that the natural truth of marriage benefits everyone and discriminates against no one,” he predicted.

“But prepare yourselves: It will require heroic virtue, for there is a lot of reverse bullying going on these days.”


Connecting Life and Marriage

Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, Calif., which adjoins the San Francisco Archdiocese, acknowledged the importance of offering an integrated vision of human life that “made a clear connection between life, children, parenting and marriage. That connection is not immediately apparent to young people today.”

According to recent polls, young Catholics are much more likely than their elders to accept same-sex “marriage” as a “civil right.” In December, that trend received fresh attention from Church leaders, after hundreds of students at a Seattle Catholic high school protested the departure of the vice principal, who left after administrators learned that he had married his male partner.

During an interview with the Register, Bishop Barber noted the student protests in Seattle and suggested it should serve as a wake-up call for the Church.

“It was good that Archbishop Cordileone praised young people for their pro-life stance and also asked them to consider the larger message of marriage as the place where children are conceived and raised,” said Bishop Barber.

The education and formation of young Catholics emerged as a key component of the 2014 Walk for Life. For the first time, Catholic middle- and high-school students were invited to the Jan. 24 “Youth Conference,” which included Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Daly of San Jose, Calif., and a presentation by the Sisters for Life.  

“It is my hope that we are witnessing a sea change. And if we are, it is because the young are more pro-life than the generation that proceeded them,” Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, the superior general of the Sisters of Life, told the Register.

“They feel poignantly the effect of a culture of death. One-third of their generation are not with them, and there is the loss of siblings. They wish for a better world,” said Mother Agnes, who reported that the Walk for Life organizers had invited 12 Sisters for Life to participate in various events over the weekend.


Focus on Women

“Abortion Hurts Women” has remained the central theme of the Walk for Life, and posters and banners proclaimed that truth at this year’s rally in San Francisco, which included testimonies from women who have been harmed by abortion.

Mother Agnes emphasized that the Sisters of Life, like many of the tens of thousands who marched in downtown San Francisco, focused their efforts on healing the wounds of abortion, not condemning women.

“When we approach a woman, we seek to give her the space and the place to access the deepest desires of her heart. And when a woman can access those desires, she invariably turns to embrace that child,” she said.

“We seek to empower women to make a real choice and then to provide her with those tangible resources that support her in living that decision.”

The 2014 Walk for Life also marked the first “West Coast Summit,” sponsored by Life Legal Defense Foundation, Ave Maria School of Law and the National LIFE Runners. The organizers said they wanted to “bring together pro-life leaders and students to create measurable and achievable objectives for overturning Roe v. Wade and for defending the sanctity of human life.”

After the walk, Abby Johnson, the former Planned Parenthood facility manager who wrote about her change of heart in her book Unplanned, offered training for sidewalk counselors.

During the rally in front of City Hall, as pro-lifers waved signs that read, “Women deserve better than abortion,” Walk for Life co-founder Dolores Meehan told the Register that she was excited by the number of young people and the “new ancillary events, like the first Students for Life conference on the West Coast,” which featured speakers and training.

Speakers at the rally reflected the broad cross-section of pro-life activism, from Anglican and Baptist pro-life ministers to advocates for adoption and a young woman who presented a secular argument for opposing abortion.

Live coverage of the event was broadcast on EWTN.


Growing Momentum

Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life told the Register, “My message here today is that we have the victory in our hands. I said to activists, ‘We aren’t just working for victory; we are working from victory, because of the Resurrection."

“People are here who have been in the movement since the beginning, and people are here who have just joined. Whether you are talking about perseverance or new enthusiasm, we have reason for confidence.”

Patrick Summerhays, a seminarian at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif., who was participating in his fourth Walk for Life, echoed the sense of excitement sparked by the momentum of the West Coast event, especially the “events growing up around it, like the youth conference.” 

Asked to comment on Archbishop Cordileone’s remarks about the connection between abortion and marriage, Summerhays told the Register, “The archbishop put his finger on the core issue, and we can’t back off on this. The nation could overturn Roe, but still we could damage the lives of children in the future because that connection with their parents is so vital.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.