- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 28, 2010

I spent last Thursday evening interviewing people lying on the floor.

They were participants in America’s largest religious pilgrimage: the annual March for Life from the Mall to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, whose ruling on Jan. 22, 1973, legalized abortion.

Thirty-seven years later, tens of thousands of Catholics come hundreds of miles in the dead of winter for this event, outstripping by four to one other religious denominations protesting America’s 50-million-plus abortions. I was curious as to what makes folks interrupt their studies (the bulk of protesters are college students) or take time off work to spend one’s day standing in the mud on the Mall listening to two hours of speeches, then getting trapped in a claustrophobic crowd waiting to march up Constitution Avenue.

I showed up just before 10 p.m. in the crypt of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where several hundred people — there for an all-night prayer vigil — were trying to grab some shut-eye. Knapsacks, suitcases, stuffed animals, pillows and black-robed monks were everywhere — sort of like a cross between a frat sleepover and a set for “The DaVinci Code.”

Fernando Rosas, 20, a junior at the University of Central Florida (UCF), was squirming in obvious discomfort in a thin sleeping bag on the cold marble floor near Colleen Farris, another of the 40 UCF students who took a bus up.

“This is such a small sacrifice for a greater cause for people who don’t have a chance to be alive,” she said.

Both of them had just come from a standing-room-only three-hour Mass in the main church, where the opening procession — of hundreds of priests, seminarians, bishops and cardinals — lasted 45 minutes. The theme of the day was repentance and sacrifice; after all, the Mass was in honor of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr.

Then people headed for the crypt chapel to pray a rosary for the aborted. More vigils and confessions were slated during the early hours of the morning followed by yet another Mass in the upstairs church. This was being repeated at venues all over the Washington area, where seemingly every Catholic church within a 25-mile radius of the Supreme Court was hosting swarms of visitors in their parish halls.

Although 25,000 people got into either the Mass for Life at the Verizon Center or one of 15 satellite venues on Friday, tickets for the event were gone in 45 minutes and 10,000 people were turned away. When I wandered into the Verizon Center, the Rev. Lawrence Swink, pastor of St. Pius X Church in Bowie, was sermonizing on the need to be chaste.

“If Tim Tebow can do it, so can you!” he said, referring to the University of Florida star quarterback. “Like Nike says: Just do it.”

As I listened to this pep talk by a priest who is citing a Southern Baptist football star to energize Catholic kids, I realized that what happens every Jan. 22 is not just about abortion. It’s an annual rallying of the troops to offer mutual encouragement for a very unpopular position supporting the unborn.

Which is why two dozen Catholic bishops and cardinals showed up. Which is why one Orthodox prelate: Metropolitan Jonah, ordered several of his bishops to attend the march. Which is why Lutherans from around the country descended on Immanuel Lutheran Church in Alexandria for a worship service and pre-march brunch.

This is an alternate society here. Although barely noticed by most media, what other group marshals more than 100,000 people every year to descend on the nation’s capital in dreary weather?

You tell me.

Julia Duin can be reached at jduin@washingtontimes.com.

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