My own walk for life started before I had even left the campus of Thomas Aquinas College. For me, it was the sermon that one of our college chaplains gave Friday morning before we left that began this journey. It was the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul that we were celebrating. In his sermon, Fr. Illo compared our drive to San Francisco with St. Paul’s trip to Damascus. He stressed that we should concentrate on our journey as a pilgrimage, and that just as St. Paul was converted, we too should be converted and strive to make this a prayerful event.
Although there was no doubt about our mission—we were going to march for life and stand up for the rights of the unborn—I was glad Fr. Illo clarified what this meant. It is easy to participate in an external way; it’s the internal participation that is a bit more difficult. We were not going merely to enjoy the city, nor to convert abortionists; we were embarking on a journey of prayer and penance to bear witness to the Truth and hopefully to be changed by this experience.
With this in mind, we set off for San Francisco after classes in two buses, with many more students taking their own cars. Our drive went very smoothly. We amused ourselves with sleeping and watching Star Wars movies; to keep a balance in the force, we also prayed a rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet to keep ourselves focused on our mission.
We arrived in the city around midnight and all piled into the basement gymnasia of Saints Peter and Paul church, which was generously opened for us to use as a temporary dormitory for our weekend stay. One could not ask for a better location: not only were we within walking distance of downtown and other popular parts of the city, we also had access to Adoration all night. After we got situated in the basement, many students went upstairs to the church to pray and prepare ourselves for the Walk for Life the next day. It was very peaceful praying in the dead of night, and it was comforting to know that many people in various churches throughout the city were also praying through the night for the same cause.
The next morning we headed to St. Mary’s Cathedral for the pro-life Mass. As we approached the cathedral, we could see that the whole block was surrounded with buses dropping off people for Mass. I was lucky to get a seat, for the Cathedral was literally packed to the walls, and many people had to stand in the back. As Mass started, the procession of priests and bishops stretched further than I could see. The sermon was given by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, who focused on the same theme that our chaplain had set out for us. The heart of the archbishop’s sermon was that the best way to convert and change people is through our own holiness, that it is only through changing our own hearts that we will be able to change the hearts of others. I felt this was not a coincidence, and I began to see this idea of self-conversion as a theme for this Walk.
After Mass, we headed to the City Hall at Justin Herman Plaza where the march would begin. When we arrived there were already many people assembled; during the rally I heard mentioned that we were about 50,000 strong. All of us were encouraged by our numbers, but the best encouragement of all was when Pope Benedict XVI’s representative, Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Vigano, read a blessing that the Pope had given specifically for our march. As we got under way, Thomas Aquinas College students were honored by leading the Walk for Life with the responsibility of keeping a good pace and formation for the rest of the walk. While in past years we had to worry about pushing through protestors, this year we had a fleet of police cars and motorcycles to pave the way for us down Market Street and through downtown.
Once the walk got started, we began to sing religious hymns and patriotic songs, and with each one I felt that we were becoming more unified. After about ten minutes we began to hear loud shouts, and in the distance we could see people gathering to protest our march. I braced myself, for having been in the Walk before, I knew what to expect from these protestors. As we drew closer, I could not help but feel a certain heaviness come over me. Having so much anger and hate being directed at you is not an easy thing, especially when it is entirely unjust. But we raised our voices in song, and with smiles, pushed through. There was a stark contrast between the wild ferocity and anger of the protesters and our calm peacefulness and prayer.
There was one protestor’s banner that stuck out from all the rest. On it was written: “This walk hates women!” Naturally, my first response was to think: “That’s a lie! Clearly we treat women better than you do.” Just then, though, the words of Fr. Illo and Archbishop Cordileone appeared in my mind. I knew that even though we might not commit abortions, we are not totally innocent of dishonoring women—we too are guilty and stand in need of conversion. Even if we might not be guilty of committing this sin of abortion, how many of us have neglected to defend women from being dishonored? For myself, I knew that I could be doing a better job at this, for it is usually through a lack of loving on my part that others are not brought to see the Truth.
I could not shake off this thought the rest of the day. I knew that what had been presented to me was more than a chance to participate in an annual Walk for Life—I was shown another way to be pro-life: to be pro-life with one’s whole life. To walk once a year is not enough to relieve us of our obligation to fight abortion. Our lives must be a witness to the truth, the goodness, and the beauty that can be found in Christ’s love. Yet for us to radiate all this, a greater conversion through prayer and penance is needed.
Later that night, I went with a group of friends to an Italian restaurant for dinner. As we were about to leave, a man there asked us what group we were and why we were here. We told him that we were students of Thomas Aquinas College and that we had come to San Francisco for the Walk for Life. He responded by saying he admired our courage for coming to such a rough city in order to stand up for the truth, and we could see that our actions had a deep impact on him. He told us that it is hard for him and others to stand up in such an aggressively backward city, and that he was strengthened by our example. He told us that he was filled with hope to see that there were still people who were willing to step up and defend life.
Looking back on the Walk, I cannot know what impact it made on the nation’s attitudes about abortion, nor what kind of success it will generate for the unborn. But I know that our witness gave hope to others, and that change will come only when we allow the Truth to transform us. With God’s grace we will prevail!
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Michael Masteller is a member of the class of 2013 at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California.