Marching for Life

Diocese of Knoxville parishioners of all ages take part in Washington, D.C., rally

By Jim Wogan

Each year since 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling on Roe vs. Wade, effectively legalizing abortion, people who strongly oppose that decision have traveled to Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life — a mile-long journey of faith and unity that begins on the National Mall near the Washington Monument and continues along Constitution Avenue past the U.S. Capitol to the U.S. Supreme Court building.

This year, similar to previous years, more than 200 participants from the Diocese of Knoxville were among hundreds of thousands of marchers to demonstrate their opposition to the landmark legal ruling and to stand up for the protection of innocent lives by walking a path they hope will lead to its repeal and to the end of abortion.

Knoxville Catholic High School students gather in front of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. With them are Father Michael Hendershott, seminarian Wojciech Sobczuk, Sister John Catherine Kennedy, OP, and Sister Mara Rose McDonnell, OP.

For the Diocese of Knoxville marchers, the March for Life was actually the culmination of a longer journey. Despite a daunting travel schedule that, for many, included a sleepless night riding in a bus, the purpose of the bigger mission wasn’t lost on them.

Denny Sales, a parishioner at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Lenoir City and a freshman at Lenoir City High School, was among 37 marchers who left East Tennessee on the night of Jan. 17, arriving in Washington in the early morning of Jan. 18, the day of the march.

Later that day, waiting near the National Mall for the march to begin, Denny reflected on why he made the trip.

“God made us all in His image, and I feel like He wanted us to experience the world He made. Taking the lives of those who don’t get that experience goes against everything God wants us to do,” he said. “He wants us to protect lives. He wants us to speak for them.”

In addition to the group traveling from St. Thomas, diocesan March for Life organizer Donna Jones led 122 students and chaperones from parishes that included St. Jude, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, St. Stephen, and the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga.

Their two-bus caravan also included participants from the parishes St. Augustine in Signal Mountain, St. Bridget in Dayton, St. Thérèse of Lisieux in Cleveland, St. Mary in Oak Ridge, Notre Dame in Greeneville, and St. Michael the Archangel in Erwin. Father Christopher Floersch, spiritual director at Notre Dame High School, joined the group.

Knoxville Catholic High School traveled to Washington with 64 students and chaperones, including organizer Danielle Sanok. Father Michael Hendershott, co-chaplain at KCHS and associate pastor at Holy Ghost Parish in Knoxville, and Wojciech Sobczuk, a seminarian of the Diocese of Knoxville, were part of the group.

KCHS students arrived in Washington on Jan. 17 and attended a Mass led by Father Hendershott at the St. John Paul II Shrine with students from across the United States.

Students from Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga attended the March for Life. Father Christopher Floersch, Sister Mary Rebekah Odle-Kemp, OP, and Sister Scholastica Neimann, OP, joined the group.

For the Chattanooga and Lenoir City groups, Thursday night blended softly into Friday morning at some point on their bus journeys along Interstate 81 in Virginia.

Both groups arrived at the Capital One Arena in Washington at around 5:30 a.m., and by 6 a.m. most of them had taken their seats inside the arena for a youth rally and Mass. Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States, was the main celebrant of the Mass, which was attended by nearly 18,000 worshipers.

“It was pretty rough getting here, but I think it’s all worth it just to help end abortion,” said Kimberly Gonzalez, a freshman at Loudon High School and a parishioner at St. Thomas.

Both Kimberly and Denny and the other students from across the Diocese of Knoxville are members of what organizers have called “The Pro-Life Generation.”

“They talk about the pro-life generation and it truly is. What I try to get our kids to understand is they need to change their friends, and to get their friends to think that abortion is something that should be re-thought,” said Kevin Cooney, director of the Youth and Family Ministry at St. Thomas the Apostle. “Teenagers are going to talk to teenagers a lot more than they’re going to talk to adults.”

Following Mass, the Capital One Arena emptied and worshipers joined thousands of other march participants as they made their way along F Street to the National Mall. By noon, the diocesan participants, some who were attending their first march, began to realize the magnitude of the event and the size of the movement they have become part of.

“On our way back from the march on the bus every year, they, especially the public school youth, are in awe of the larger Church,” Ms. Jones said.

“They are amazed at how many religious, especially the many bishops, who attend and concelebrate at the youth rally and Mass, and the Mass at the basilica. Being there, along with (hundreds of thousands) of other pro-life people peacefully marching for life, praying on the bus, Mass with the larger Church, interacting with people from all over the United States, helps them grow stronger in their faith as young adults by putting their faith into action,” she added.

Hundreds of thousands of pro-life supporters descended on Washington, D.C., Jan. 18 to participate in the annual March for Life. Despite the overwhelming turnout, the march received little media coverage.

While there are other Marches for Life in other U.S. cities, including Knoxville, the Washington march has become an enduring symbol of the pro-life movement. In fact, with each turn of the head it was hard not to notice a sign or banner associated with dioceses and archdioceses in New York, Indiana, Louisiana, and Florida, and many other states.

The multitude of religious orders and clergy, marching side-by-side with laypeople in plain view of Washington’s monuments and the U.S. Capitol building, provided a tangible sense of credibility and hope.

“We started coming about 15 years ago,” said Curt Sheldon, a St. Thomas the Apostle parishioner. “It is great to see people from all over the country, young people, old people, priests, nuns, everything, to help you realize you’re not the only person.”

Mr. Sheldon was accompanied on the trip by his wife, Kay.

“I think people’s hearts and minds are changing little by little,” Mrs. Sheldon said. “One of the speeches said ‘politicians aren’t going to solve the problem, only prayer can,’ and I think people’s hearts and minds are changing little by little with prayer,” she said.

It’s been almost 50 years since Roe vs. Wade, and organizers reminded marchers that since then 60 million lives have been ended by abortion. Despite the numbers, diocesan leaders remain optimistic that someday the efforts of marchers will pay off.

“Every year I am inspired by how the lives of my students are forever changed, for the better, by attending the March for Life,” said Ms. Sanok of Knoxville Catholic High School. “The joy that radiates from each of them proves to me that this is a movement worth believing in as the students come back knowing they can be the positive change that promotes the value of respecting all life and loving humankind, despite differences among us. They come back knowing they are not alone in their thoughts and are greatly inspired to do better for all life, not just the unborn.”

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