WASHINGTON (CNS) — What you don’t comprehend about the marching portion of the March for Life until you’re in it is, even though it appears somewhat unorganized at the start, is that it’s an intensely polite and orderly experience despite its immense size.
For many participants, it’s a pilgrimage. There are no raised voices, there are occasional chants from student groups, it moves very slowly — a brisk walking pace would seem like a sprint — and there appear to be as many thousands of people lining the sidewalks as there are on the street.
The throng at the pre-march rally on the National Mall doesn’t give a true sense of the sheer bigness of the march itself. Many groups, all with placards, join it midway through, and quite a few others, rather than try to squeeze in on the street, accompany it on the sidewalks.
This year, the scheduled 1 p.m. start was delayed for 50 minutes as police cleared away barriers in place as part of the security for President Donald Trump’s address at the Jan. 24 March for Life rally.
No one tells the groups how to assemble. They just quietly line up. A handful of Knights of Columbus kept the front of the march somewhat tidy with rope barriers as they cleared spectators back to the sidewalks, but no one announced an order to begin. The police squad cars started to roll, there was a mighty whoop, and the walk to the Supreme Court was underway.
Anne-Marie Rimback of Laytonsville, Maryland, attended with her son Adam. She used to attend marches in the 1980s when she was in high school and felt inspired to return after watching it on TV last year.
“In a society that’s so secular and anti-life on so many levels, we start to think that’s the reality,” she said in an interview with Catholic News Service. “That’s not the message of the younger generation, which really is the future.”
LaVonne Vogt, who had driven from Wilmington, North Carolina, with her husband, Bob, marched for the second straight year and marveled at the calm she sensed.
Last year, she said, “I thought the spirit of this was quite amazing. To have that many people, and nobody was angry, nobody was ugly That’s what, to me, defines that the spirit of God is here.”
It was the first year for Drew Timmermeier, a freshman at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, who was part of a delegation of just over 300 representing the Diocese of Springfield, Illinois.
“People just know there was a calling to come together,” he said of the march. “It was a simple message.”
Asked about Trump’s appearance at the rally, he said, “Politics doesn’t matter to me. As long as abortion is legal, we’ll still be here.”
Catalina Scheider Galinanes, this year’s student speaker at the march, has been to almost as many marches as Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund. It was her seventh and Mancini’s eighth.
“It’s so inspiring and so powerful to go with family and friends,” said the junior at Oakcrest School in Vienna, Virginia.
She’s president of the school’s Respect Life Club. Forty students from the school were chosen to carry the parade-front banner for the entire duration of the march down Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court.
It’s in keeping with this year’s theme, “Pro-Life Is Pro-Woman,” linking the pro-life cause to the women’s suffrage leaders who brought about the 19th Amendment, enabling women to vote for the first time.
“And so I thought it was appropriate that we have young women at the front of the march,” said Mancini in an interview with Catholic News Service ahead of the event.
Another 200 students from Colorado Christian University in the Denver suburb of Lakewood were chosen to carry pennants.
Putting the focus on young participants has been Mancini’s goal for some time.
“The way I see it, the March for Life is organically young grassroots. Like, we don’t really try really hard to bring young people to the March for Life. They are attracted to the issue now.”
That’s partly been the result of the organization’s aggressive use of social media. “Knowing that social media is a language that reaches young people, so there’s a pretty massive difference from eight years ago. I think we’re the most followed pro-life group on Instagram,” Mancini explained.
“When we do the surveys after the march to see who the favorite speakers were, by and large it’s always the young speaker, someone like Catalina, that people were excited to hear from, because they’re speaking for their generation.”
Young people “know that social justice begins in the womb, and they have such hopes that their generation will make abortion unthinkable.”
The long-established image of the marchers is of school groups in matching toboggan caps, and parish groups arriving by bus. But to anyone who has ever talked to marchers, a more nuanced picture emerges. Many are there as individuals or as couples who have come on their own.
Mancini has some personal experience with that as well.
“It’s almost like a call,” she agreed. “Someone in my family came for the first time last year. I think he felt a certain call to come. It really changed his heart.
“He’s going to be back this year. … He’s got all his work to rearrange and he has to come from way out West. The experience is really transformative. Something about standing up in a public way.”
“Just witnessing everyone standing up for pro-life” has an impact, Scheider Galinanes added.
— By Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service.