What began with two priests and less than fifty lay Catholics has outgrown the largest church in North America
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.