What began with two priests and less than fifty lay Catholics has outgrown the largest church in North America
Just one verse each day.
The January 22 March for Life — in which about 400,000 or more pro-life individuals walk (usually in the bitter cold) from the National Mall to the Supreme Court Building to show their support for life and opposition to abortion on demand — grabs all the day’s media coverage. Oh, wait. No, it doesn’t. It’s scarcely a blip on their radar. Except for “conservative” and religious media, the March is not seen as newsworthy enough to be worth the cost of the ink to print a paragraph on page 18 in the Local News section.
Washington, DC is home to another event around the same time as the March, one that is huge and inspiring and of even less interest to the mainstream media: the annual Prayer Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — the largest Roman Catholic church in North America and among the ten largest in the world.
How the Prayer Vigil for Life grew from about 50 people praying all night in the Shrine’s Crypt Church to a televised Mass, with closed circuit TVs throughout both levels of the packed Shrine, and simultaneous “overflow” Masses in various churches and chapels within walking distance to accommodate perhaps 15,000 worshippers that evening alone, is a story worth retelling.
Tonight, you can tune in (or set your recorders) to EWTN at 6:30 PM for the Opening Mass in the Great Upper Church, with Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston and Chair of the USCCB Committee for Pro-Life Activities as Principal Celebrant and Homilist, and at 7:30 AM on January 22 for the Closing Mass, with the Most Rev. Joseph E. Kurtz, Archbishop of Louisville and President of the USCCB, serving as Principal Celebrant and Homilist.
Be advised, however, that you may not catch a glimpse of Cardinal O’Malley until about the 7 PM mark because he will be preceded in the Procession to the sanctuary by about 500-plus seminarians, lots of deacons, 400-500 priests, about 40-50 bishops and archbishops, the Apostolic Nuncio and 4 or 5 cardinals. But, trust me, you won’t be bored waiting for Mass to begin. The Shrine choir and organist contribute beautifully to the solemnity of the occasion. The faces of pilgrims in the standing-room-only (in every nook, cranny, stairwell and side chapel) crowd are radiant with anticipation and joy to be part of this Mass.
Best of all, you can observe the over 1,000 clergy and seminarians as they process to the sanctuary. They are as diverse a bunch of men as you can imagine: they come in all ages from their early 20s to late 80s, all sizes, all races and most ethnicities, from all parts of the United States. They are religious and secular, academics and pastors, clean-shaven, bearded, bald, shaggy-haired, reserved and exuberant, showing the universality of the Church and God’s call through the ages for holy priests to serve his Church and his people. You can’t help but be moved by the thought of their collective years of faithful service — in the course of their lives, totalling perhaps 50-60,000 years. God bless them!
Lest readers get the wrong idea, I do know that a Mass offered privately by one priest is equal to one celebrated before thousands of worshippers with elaborate pomp and ceremony. Both are re-presentations of Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary; Jesus again, but in an unbloody way, offers His Body and Blood to the Father for our salvation. And there is a risk, of course, that the music and spectacle might distract people from Jesus’ sacrifice on the altar. But in twenty years of attending the Opening Mass of the Prayer Vigil for Life, it’s clear that (nearly all) the assembly is gathered to worship and to pray that every human life will be valued and defended. They don’t come for the bells and smells and hoopla.
The first March for Life took place on the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade in 1974. Naturally, many Catholics travelled to Washington to march and to pray, on their own or with their group, making the trip a pilgrimage marked by sacrifice and prayer. Prior to the 1979 March for Life, Maryknoll Brother Goretti Zilli from Ossining, New York was inspired to gather his small group and others for an all-night Prayer Vigil for Life in the Shrine’s Crypt Church. Sally Reynolds and her “Mothers of Mary” from Michigan and Rhode Island took part, along with DC resident Virginia Murphy and her “Immaculate Heart Reparation Society.” A Philadelphia priest, Fr. John Gabin, celebrated Mass that evening in the Crypt Church, with about fifty people in attendance. Eucharistic adoration, Stations of the Cross, the National Rosary for Life and other devotions continued through the night. A Mass was celebrated by Fr. John Randall of Providence, Rhode Island at midnight. Brother (later, Father) Michael Cerrone coordinated and led prayers through the night for peace and an end to abortion. In time, the dream of these founders for an all-night vigil of prayer for life exceeded anything they might have imagined.
Later that year, at the request of the Mothers of Mary, Cardinal John Carberry asked the Bishops’ conference to co-sponsor the event, which they did, beginning in 1980. By 1985, having already outgrown the seating capacity of the Crypt Church, the Opening Mass was moved to the Great Upper Church.
Over the years, the list of Principal Celebrants at the Opening and Closing Masses includes many of the great leaders of the Church in America: Cardinals James Hickey (Washington, DC), Joseph Bernardin (Chicago), John O’Connor (NY), Bernard Law (Boston), Roger Mahony (Los Angeles), Adam Maida (Detroit), William Keeler (Baltimore), Bishop James McHugh (Camden), Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua (Philadelphia), Theodore McCarrick (Washington, DC), Justin Rigali (Philadelphia), Donald Wuerl (Washington, DC), Daniel DiNardo (Galveston-Houston) and Seán O’Malley (Boston).
For about two decades, the USCCB Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities coordinated with Shrine staff to accommodate the growing numbers of young pilgrims who’d arrived by the busload with no other place to catch a few hours of sleep. While hundreds of stalwarts continued to pray through the night in the Crypt Church, Memorial Hall and the rest of the lower level of the Basilica were wall-to-wall sleeping bags. Gail Quinn, former Executive Director of the Pro-Life Secretariat and a few intrepid members of her staff spent the night making fresh pots of coffee and stepping over occupied sleeping bags to serve platters of sandwiches, snacks and sodas to the pilgrims (all free). And, by the way, if you’re in the neighborhood, the Shrine continues to serve a free breakfast muffins to arriving pilgrims in the morning.
Thankfully, the Catholic University of America was eventually able to schedule "away" basketball games during the week of the March for Life, freeing up the Cardinals’ gym for students and chaperones to stay overnight. After 2010, Memorial Hall was no longer the site of a massive sleep-in. CUA became an official co-sponsor of the Prayer Vigil for Life.
Many thousands of students are also sheltered in parish halls and Catholic high school gyms throughout suburban Washington.
The format of the Prayer Vigil for Life has not changed much in the past few decades, but the number of Masses and worshippers seem to increase every year. The Basilica is the site of Confession and Masses throughout the day
— before and after the March for Life — and the evening, including Byzantine Divine Liturgy.
After the televised Opening Mass, pilgrims move to the Crypt Church where the National Rosary for Life has pride of place, as a devotion at the first Vigil for Life and at every one since. Pro-life meditations on each Joyful Mystery were written by Mother Angelica specifically for the National Rosary for Life. Following the Rosary, the Vigil continues with Night Prayer (Byzantine Rite) and Eucharistic Adoration, which runs from midnight to 7 AM, with each Holy Hour led by a volunteer group of seminarians from seminaries and religious houses of formation across the US. They almost seem to be engaged in a friendly competition to offer the most glorious prayers, devotions and reflections of the night. After Morning Prayer, Benediction and Reposition, pilgrims gather again in the Great Upper Church for the Closing Mass.
But wait! There’s more!
Many years ago, on the morning of the March, the Archdiocese of Washington organized a Mass and Rally for Life in DAR Constitution Hall, close to the Ellipse and White House, where the March began in the early years before the Park Service determined the crowds were closing off too many streets to traffic. It wasn’t long before the number of students outgrew the 3,700 person seating capacity of Constitution Hall. The Archdiocese then turned to the Verizon Center for the Mass and Rally for Life — home of the Washington Wizards and the Washingotn Capitals — with its 18,277 seating capacity (not counting the 400+ temporary seats on the court/rink itself. Well, that didn’t last long either. Now they hold two Mega-Rallies and Masses for Life, the second at the 10,000-seat DC Armory.
Across the Potomac, Bp. Paul Loverde began an Evening of Prayer as an event for groups from across the country that needed somewhere to go the night before the March for Life and for local teens who could not attend the March because of exams. That event grew from 350 in 2009 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church to almost 5000 between two venues in 2012. When it was moved to the much larger Patriot Center on the campus of George Mason University, a Morning Rally and Mass was added.
American culture is in a sorry state, but 36 hours of intense prayer and witness by a couple of hundred thousand Catholics young and old give reason for hope.
Susan Willsis a senior writer for Aleteia’s English language edition.