Zubik immerses himself in March for Life
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WASHINGTON -- Catholic Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh was running on little more than two hours sleep when he left the Catholic University of America at 7:15 yesterday morning to hear confession at the youth rally and Mass for Life that the Archdiocese of Washington was sponsoring at the Verizon Center.
All of the activity, starting with a Mass that drew 10,000 to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception the night before, are connected to the annual March for Life that draws many tens of thousands of people to Washington to declare their opposition to the 1973 Supreme Court decisions that legalized abortion.
After the vigil Mass, Bishop Zubik had joined the St. Vincent seminarians from Latrobe for a 1 a.m. Holy Hour in the Basilica crypt, where hundreds prayed all night or slept on the floor. Twenty-three of the diocese's 29 seminarians -- all but those in Rome -- joined him for the Masses and march. It was the bishop's first march in 25 years, because he had always stayed behind to work in administration so that his predecessors could attend.
He didn't remember the earlier ones as nearly so organized -- or as youthful. The vast majority of those in attendance were 25 or younger.
"This is just astounding. People often speak as if young people today are devoid of values. That clearly is not what you see here," he said.
He was driven to the Verizon Center by seminarian Tom Gillespie, 40, a North Sider who was an Army psychiatrist before entering seminary. Although he had always believed in the humanity of the unborn child, Mr. Gillespie said, hearing the devastation of men and women who had lost children to abortion confirmed his convictions.
"I'm here to be a witness," he said as he entered the Verizon Center for Mass. "Compared to all of the political conflict we have, this is a prayerful way to support life and a way to show that faith is still strong in our country."
Bishop Zubik was one of just two bishops among 125 priests to volunteer to hear confessions in an arena restaurant, while Catholic rock bands revved up the crowds in their seats. The lines to see the confessors were about 50 deep at all times, and many teens were turned away when Mass began. Thousands more were turned away from the area itself when the 22,000 seating capacity was reached at 8:25. When he emerged from confession, Bishop Zubik was astounded to see them standing outside in a freezing drizzle because even the neighboring parishes that held overflow Masses were filled.
"That was the first hint I had how huge this was," he said.
These were teens who had traveled from as far as Florida, New Orleans and Kansas to cheer for their priests -- and for Pope Benedict XVI, who sent them a special message of encouragement. They applauded a homily by the Rev. Scott Woods, an African-American pastor from Washington, D.C., who compared the cause of human fetuses to that of blacks struggling for freedom in the civil rights movements.
"We, like Dr. Martin Luther King, must remember that we will not reach our goal only through changing the laws of our country, but primarily by changing the hearts of our brothers and sisters," he said.
Larry Adams, 41, who entered St. Paul Seminary three weeks ago from St. Germaine parish in Bethel Park, where he used to teach catechism, said he found himself crying at the enthusiasm of the youth. "To see kids that excited about their faith, and wanting to make a difference that's what you want to see as a teacher. I kept thinking, I wish I had my class with me."
Bishop Zubik rejoined the seminarians for the walk to the more political rally on the Capitol mall. Although the bishops were expected up front on the podium, he ran late because he constantly stopped to chat with parishioners he met both from Pittsburgh and his former diocese of Green Bay, Wis. The stage that he eventually ascended was lined with people holding signs saying "I regret my abortion" or "I regret lost fatherhood." One of the latter was a fully robed monk.
Other faiths were represented on the podium, including Eastern Orthodox bishops, an African Methodist Episcopal pastor and an Orthodox rabbi.
Just as she was about to announce the winners of a student contest for essays, posters and poems about the right to life, Nellie Gray, a matriarch of the anti-abortion movement who has organized this march for its 34-year history, fell over an amplifier and did not get up. Religious figures on the stage prayed for her as medical personnel came and she was carried off in an ambulance. Bishop Zubik, who was standing nearby, said that she appeared to be conscious.
But most speeches at this rally are political, especially in an election year. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback was the most popular, as he declared, "this is a young movement, with strong legs and a strong heart." He also read them a message from Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who told them, "I pledge to you to be a loyal and unswerving friend of the right-to-life movement."
The local speaker was former Republican Rep. Melissa Hart, who greeted many Pittsburgh parishes by name and spoke of her continuing work to end abortion.
Afterward Bishop Zubik said he was pleased at how many politicians had spoken forthrightly of the commitment to rights for the unborn. "I think it gives some hope that we do have political leaders who speak to this issue -- some at the cost of their political lives."
Demonstrators also heard a recorded message from President Bush, who also was host to about 200 demonstrators in the East Room of the White House.
As he prepared to board a van back to Pittsburgh with his seminarians at 3:30 p.m., Bishop Zubik said he was feeling good and very upbeat, even though he had had no coffee or food.
Although the March for Life marks a mournful occasion for its participants, its mood is upbeat. After 35 years, there are families that have participated for three generations, and Bishop Zubik had a sense that, if the legalization of abortion was overturned tomorrow, the marchers would return next year, in part because they enjoy it so much.
No matter what happens legally, "this is not an issue that will ever go away. It's an issue that defines us as human beings," he said.
First Published January 23, 2008 12:00 am