Marching Peaceably, Praying Mightily
A dozen of us gathered before sunrise on January 23, 2012, outside the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Bookstore, to travel to our nation’s capital. We went to represent St. Vladimir’s at the 39th annual March for Life, an event that marks the anniversary of the tragic ruling of our Supreme Court to allow for the termination of pre-born human life, at any stage of gestation, for any reason. Hundreds of thousands of participants came from all corners of the United States to march down Constitution Avenue in Washington D.C. in protest of our country’s current policy of abortion on demand, a policy which has victimized not only countless unborn children, but also the mothers and fathers of those children, parents who have had to endure the aftermath of making what is for many an "impossible" decision.
In spite of the serious subject of the march and our early departure time, our group was in high spirits. We arrived at St. Nicholas Cathedral, the national cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), where the parish community warmly received us and offered us a delicious lunch. After a short while, we all piled back into the van and made the short trip down to the National Mall. There, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, and within walking distance of all the grand memorials of our nation’s illustrious leaders, an enormous crowd gathered in front of a center stage, and the speakers began to call the pre-march rally to order.
I have to admit, I was nervous about how this march would go. It’s an election year in the United States, and, sadly, one of the ways in which the point of the march can be easily lost is when it becomes merely a talking point for this or that political party and not a peaceful protest against the tragic loss of unprotected life. I half expected some speakers to lash out against our president or his party; or, even worse, I expected that this march would become a way for people to shame certain groups within our society—namely, the mothers of those babies lost to abortion—as being the ones solely responsible for choosing to abort their children. I was thrilled to be proven wrong.
Metropolitan Jonah, primate of the OCA and president of St. Vladimir’s Seminary, was given the honor this year of offering the opening prayer at the rally. It was moving to hear a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people responding to His Beatitude’s petitions in a unified, “Lord, have mercy.” In those petitions, His Beatitude not only pleaded for God to forgive our nation for the murder of countless unborn children but also asked for God to “remember not our hypocrisy” as Christians who couple “external zeal matched only with practical inaction to assist those who fall prey to the despair and hopelessness of abortion.” His Beatitude acknowledged our responsibility to reach out in non-judgmental love to the mothers who themselves remain traumatized by abortion; he prayed for God to “accept…the grief of mothers who have aborted their children as a cry of repentance.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) also spoke at the rally. Rather than giving a politically partisan stump speech, he acknowledged that though many who march together "may disagree in other areas, sometimes starkly…we are one and the same on this, because human life is not a political or economic commodity and defending life is not a matter of party." I very much appreciated Speaker Boehner’s recognition that this event could and should transcend political affiliation and any particular personality, focusing rather on the horrible effects that Roe v. Wade has wrought on us as a people and seeking to find a way forward in healing spiritual, physical, and psychological wounds.
Once the rally was over, the group from St. Vladimir’s gathered together with His Beatitude, along with His Grace Tikhon, bishop of Philadelphia and Eastern Pennsylvania; His Grace Melchisedek, bishop of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania; His Grace Michael, bishop of New York City and New York and New Jersey; and His Grace Matthias, bishop of Chicago and the Midwest. Also joining us were seminarians from our sister OCA seminary, St. Tikhon’s, and from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, along with scores of Orthodox faithful from several different states. After gathering under the familiar “Orthodox Christians for Life” banner, we proceeded together down Constitution Avenue.
It was at this point that I noticed the remarkable difference in the “feel” of this year’s march, in contrast to last year’s march. Last year, it seemed like many people at the march would yell out trite, flippant chants—smiling all the way!—which betrayed the solemnity and gravity of the event. This year, those who came to pray calmly and peacefully set the tone on the street. There were large groups of Roman Catholics who prayed the rosary together as they walked. Hierodeacon Herman (Majkrzak), a liturgical music lecturer and Chapel Music Director at St. Vladimir’s, had very thoughtfully prepared folders of select Orthodox liturgical music for use during the march; the sound of Orthodox hymns seemed to provide a much more meditative, respectful, and appropriate tone for the march.
We proceeded until we arrived at a particular street corner where we had, in years past, attempted to offer a short panikhida for the unborn who had been lost to abortion. In previous years, police had shooed us off the sidewalk in order to maintain crowd control. This year, thank God, we were allowed to stay for as long as we wanted. And given this opportunity, His Beatitude once again set the tone for our approach as Pro-Life Orthodox Christians. He not only led us in the panikhida for the unborn, but, following that, he led us in singing “O Virgin Pure,” a hymn of supplication to the Mother of God. Specifically, we petitioned her to help us in reaching out in genuine love to those mothers who had lost their children to abortion. Several members of our group commented on how this hymn was one of the most moving moments of the entire march.
Following the prayer service, we were free to remain on the corner to meet fellow Orthodox and receive His Beatitude’s blessing; after this, many of us went back to St. Nicholas Cathedral, where we were once again fed a delicious meal. Following the meal, His Beatitude offered a brief word of thanks to all of us for traveling so far and for standing in solidarity in support of our faith’s stance on life. We then said good-bye and journeyed back home to St. Vlad’s, arriving late that night after a long but rewarding day.
I am so grateful that our seminary offers us the opportunity to participate in this event (classes are called off on this day so that anyone who wants to go is able to do so without falling behind in studies). It is clear that both the leaders of the march in general and our Orthodox leaders in particular are well aware of the broad scope of work that needs to be done to address the damage done by our country’s allowance of abortion: from peaceably assembling to protest the lack of protection of innocent lives in the womb, to caring for traumatized women who suffer long after the act of abortion, to counseling men involved in the decision to abort a child. We as Orthodox Christians must be more active in addressing all of these needs. This year’s march has placed within participants the mindset to do all these things in the future.
View a photo gallery of the 39th March for Life, by Dn. Gregory Hatrak, here.