By Ann Schneible
WASHINGTON, DC, JANUARY 25, 2013 (Zenit.org).- Some 13,000 people attended the opening Mass of a pre-March for Life vigil, which began with Mass and continued through the night at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
The vigil is held each year the night before the annual March for Life, which marks the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion in the United States. This year was the 40th anniversary of that decision. More than 55 million legal abortions have been carried out since that date.
In addition to the official Masses celebrated at the opening and closing of the vigil, numerous other Masses were held by other pilgrim groups on Thursday through Saturday. Officials at the National Shrine estimate that as many as 30,000 pilgrims will have visited the Shrine over the course of these few days.
Chairman of the Secretariat of Pro-Life activities for the United States Conference of Bishops, Cardinal Seán O'Malley of Boston, was the principle celebrant of Thursday evening's opening Mass, where he was joined by four other cardinals, 42 bishops, 395 priests, 80 deacons, and 520 seminarians from around the country.
In his homily, Cardinal O'Malley noted that it was "such an immense consolation to have so many young Catholics" present at the vigil, which was predominately attended by young people.
The Supreme Court decision of Jan. 22, 1973, he said, left pro-life Americans feeling "the frustration of being disenfranchised by an activist Supreme Court which has denied them the right to vote about abortion."
"Nevertheless," he said, "pro-life activists have not ceased to wage a campaign of moral persuasion on campuses, workplaces, and neighborhoods. It's amazing to think that there are tens of thousands of volunteers working in some 3,000 pregnancy help centers that have provided millions of women in difficult pregnancies with invaluable help: medical, material, and spiritual."
Cardinal O'Malley cited the legalization of abortion as being not solely a religious issue, but a civil rights issue. Forty years ago, he said, the Supreme Court decision, Roe vs. Wade, rendered "unborn children unprotected by the Constitution of the United States, like people of African American descent in the days of slavery."
Cardinal O'Malley pointed out that "the most encouraging fact, of course, is that younger Americans are more pro-life than ever."
The vigil, which ran through the night and offered pilgrims the opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Confession and to attend Eucharistic Adoration, concluded with Mass this morning which was celebrated by Bishop Kevin Ferrell of Dallas, Texas, along with two other bishops and 36 priests. This closing Mass was attended by some 5,500 people.
Making reference to the feast day upon which the March for Life falls – today's feast of the conversion of Saint Paul – Bishop Ferrell said in his homily: "On this 40th anniversary of Roe v Wade, the example of Paul’s conversion fills us with great Hope. If Jesus and his Word could change the heart of Paul, His Word can change the mind and the heart of those who do not respect human life."
"If we wish to change the 'culture of death' in our society," he continued, "we must restore God to the center of our lives. The power of the Gospel is to transform humanity from within and to make it new."
"A 'Culture of Life' would never permit the violence that permeates our lives; it would never permit the lack of reverence and respect for the dignity of every human person. It is time for us to focus more on the need to change the 'minds and hearts' of people as Jesus did, one person at a time. We can change the world as Jesus did, by placing more emphasis on the teaching of the Word of God, just as we are called to do in the New Evangelization."
Bishop Ferrell concluded: "Let us renew our faith and our commitment to give witness to the Gospel of Christ. Let us not yield to discouragement and let us never lose hope. We shall overcome all the difficulties and challenges we have to face. Jesus promised us that His Word would prevail."