A zest for living

Author: Sister Ann Astell

My colleagues on the faculty were amazed when they heard I had signed up to travel with students on the “Short Trip” to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. The itinerary meant, after all, a Thursday evening departure on a 12-hour bus ride through the night, Friday’s participation in the march itself, a return trip by bus Friday night, and a Saturday morning arrival back at Notre Dame.

Two of my theology department colleagues, Gabriel Reynolds and Larry Sullivan, shared the bus ride with me and approximately 50 students, and Philip Bess of the School of Architecture made the return trip with the students, Gabriel and me. Other Notre Dame faculty and staff rode on other buses with students — there were eight buses in all — while others arrived by plane to participate in the 2010 March for Life, an event of pro-life witness and protest now in its 37th year.

My experience is thus one little window into a vibrant, kaleidoscopic event directly involving approximately 400 Notre Dame students, faculty and staff; hundreds of alumni in the D.C. area; the pastors and parishioners at St. Agnes and St. Ann parishes in Arlington, Virginia, who hosted the Notre Dame contingent; and an estimated 300,000 marchers from all over the USA, who poured into the nation’s capital in record-breaking numbers.

“Notre Dame, Queen of the Highways, pray for us.” Inventing a new title for Mary the Mother of God, Mary Forr, our bus’s student co-captain led us in prayer as our vehicle pulled out from Hammes Bookstore. A rosary followed, with travelers on alternate sides of the aisle leading and responding. I was impressed with the atmosphere of prayer, the students’ desire to put first things first. With the completion of the rosary, the student seminarians from Old College who were seated just behind me prayed Night Prayer aloud using their breviaries and reading lamps.

A spirit of adventure reigned but by midnight the bus was quiet, most of us sleeping or trying to sleep in our seats, covered with a coat or blanket. Punctually at 7:30 a.m., we pulled into the parking lot at St. Agnes, where we joined with a group that had left campus a day earlier. A good breakfast awaited us, and we had time to freshen up, converse with each other and pray.

Holy Mass at St. Agnes was extraordinary. Father John Jenkins, CSC, the president of the University, concelebrated the Eucharist with his fellow priests and delivered an inspirational homily, which linked witness to the sanctity of human life to the scriptural readings, to the Gospel of Life and its demand that we love our enemies. Hundreds filled the church, as those who had traveled by bus were joined by those who had come by plane and local parishioners — all of us meeting at the altar and table of the Lord to share the one bread and to be sent out on a common mission, to bear witness to the Lord who is Life and to the sanctity of all human life.

Mutual joy

Outside it was sleeting. Student leaders from Notre Dame Right to Life distributed plastic ponchos, knit caps with the NDRTL logo and day passes for the Metro, to which we walked in groups. By 11:45 we had reassembled at the National Mall. In the sea of people the Notre Dame banner helped us find our place close to the spot where marchers from the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, including bishops Kevin Rhoades and John D’Arcy, also gathered. Jenkins’ presence was a special cause of mutual joy. The unprecedented participation of a relatively large group of faculty, staff, and alumni with the students heightened the impression that “We are ND” — one large Notre Dame family.

At the signal for the start of the march, groups from across the Mall began to make their way onto Constitution Avenue along a route leading past congressional buildings to the Supreme Court — a walk lasting three hours, given the vast crowd. The sun had come out, the rain had stopped, and an unusually warm day added to the marchers’ joy. The majority of them were Catholic youth from parishes, high schools, seminaries and college campuses. Beside them parents and grandparents walked, some carrying babies or, like Notre Dame’s Bill and Elizabeth Kirk, pushing baby carts. Bishops, priests and sisters marched. The disabled, too, joined the march, including one alumna whose scooter bore a sign against euthanasia.

Carrying banners, singing hymns, praying the rosary, breaking out into football-style cheers and chants, playing instruments, pausing for conversation as one group met another in the streets, the marchers pressed forward.

Despite my questionable right to do so, given my age, I carried a banner that read “We are the Pro-Life Generation.” The slogan expresses the strong pro-life sentiment of those who consider themselves survivors in an age of legalized abortion. For these young marchers, the movement coincides with their youthful love for life itself, their zest for living, their awareness of the experience of life as an unfolding of human potentials already present in the unborn and, for many, their religious fervor for the Gospel of Life.

Then there were the “Silent No More” women. Traumatized by abortion, they had come to bear witness to the tragic consequences of abortion for mothers and children alike.

On the steps of the Supreme Court, we celebrated the conclusion of the march with the singing of “Notre Dame, Our Mother” and the Notre Dame Victory March. By 8 o’clock my fellow travelers and I were back on our buses at St. Agnes, ready to return to Notre Dame. We began again with a rosary. Some students were so tired that they fell asleep in the middle of that prayer.

Ann W. Astell, a Schoenstatt Sister of Mary, is a professor of theology at Notre Dame.