University of Mary students lead nation at annual March for Life

by Kayla Keller | Senior at University of Mary, Bismarck and Graduate of Shanley High School, Fargo

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University of Mary friends and classmates carry the lead banner for the March for Life. (University of Mary)

Throughout 16 years of Catholic schooling, I attended the March for Life four times with Shanley High School, and I had always heard that the pro-life movement was one of love. I always believed it, but I didn’t understand it until now. This March for Life, the one that I was honored to lead with over 600 of my classmates, faculty, administrators and friends at the University of Mary, was the event that convinced me of the authentic and deep love at the core of the pro-life movement. In beautiful ways, I could see love everywhere in the specific form of mercy.

What does the March for Life have to do with mercy? Quite a bit, I discovered. The Catholic Church recently finished the Year of Mercy instituted by Pope Francis, a call to recognize and reflect on God’s mercy, the greatest of the divine attributes. Mercy, I have learned, is love encountering suffering.

In leading the March for Life with a crowd of hundreds of thousands behind me, I felt like I was leading a cause of mercy. St. Teresa of Kolkata famously said that the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion. This, taken with the reality that abortion has taken 58 million innocent lives in the United States since 1973, reveals egregious and pervasive suffering in America. People who bring love to this wound in our culture, seeking to change this injustice and stop this suffering, are fundamentally showing mercy.

In leaving Bismarck, driving 30 hours to Washington D.C., spending a whirlwind 40 hours there, leading the March for Life, and driving 30 hours back to Bismarck, all I saw was mercy. This may seem strange because mercy seems like a distant, abstract concept. However, you can see mercy if you can see love. Mercy is love meeting suffering, and I encountered so many people with hearts overflowing with love.

How could I tell? Simply, because they were there. They were there on the bus, and they were there at the march (hundreds of thousands of hearts overflowing with love!) You see, love starts by showing up. Naturally then, mercy starts by showing up: being present amid suffering.

Our own University President Monsignor James Shea showed us this in a very simple way by being with us on the bus ride. This astounded me. The fact that our dignified president denied himself the opportunity to take a comfortable flight and instead chose to join the seven-bus caravan on a 30-hour adventure to Washington struck me as something likely very uncommon in university presidents.

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Timothy Cardinal Dolan joyfully poses with Monsignor Shea and the whole University of Mary group outside St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Washington, D.C. after celebrating Mass. (University of Mary)

This only makes sense with mercy. Monsignor joined us on the bus because he loves us and he desires to be with us in the small, yet very real sufferings of a 30-hour bus ride. In a larger sense, he journeyed with us because he recognizes the inherent suffering of abortion and with all the love of his heart seeks to end it. Following his lead, we were all present at the march to witness to the suffering caused by abortion and to respond with love.

Truly, we were following the example of the namesake and patroness of our university. What did Mary do at the foot of the cross but be present to her Son in his suffering with all the love of her heart. What was most important was not any of the interviews we gave, which were great and a fantastic witness, but it was the fact that we were there, the University of Mary, 600 strong! We were all physically present, marching, singing, and praying for life with our blessed and sacrament-fortified bodies. It's the presence of human life that touches the heart. It's fitting then, that we employ the witness of our own lives to fight for the sanctity and protection of human life.

This witness really touched me afterwards when looking at pictures of the event. The experience in the moment of leading the march was incredible. It was exhilarating, depleting all of our energy leading, singing, chanting, and praying continually for two hours. Mercy is tiring!

Throughout the march I loved looking at Monsignor Shea, Jerome Richter, Greg Vetter, and Scott Hennen who were walking in front of us. They were watching us and just beaming with joy. Later in the day, I saw photos of us leading the march and I was astounded. Monsignor and those in front of us were smiling because they were witnessing us lead a huge crowd. They saw behind us what we could not see at the time. We just marched on, confident that what we were doing was right.

We only knew what we were leading once we were able to look at pictures of ourselves carrying the banner. The crowd behind us was massive, but we had little knowledge of that in the moment of marching. I think that’s analogous to leading the pro-life movement in daily life. We often don’t know how many people support us and how many people fight the battle with us, but we have rare moments like the March for Life that reveal to us that we are not alone in our cause of mercy.

We also are not without leaders. This is maybe what stood out to me the most. Throughout our five-day trip, we were privileged to meet and spend time with a number of influential and experienced advocates for the pro-life movement. Timothy Cardinal Dolan celebrated Mass for us and spent time talking with us. Sean Patrick Cardinal O’Malley greeted and prayed with us before the march, and we met with Senator John Hoeven at the conclusion of the march. We also were able to hear Kellyanne Conway and Vice President Pence speak, who each have been to over 10 Marches. We went to Mass with the Sisters of Life, whose very charism is life. We got to know Al, the man who was in charge of directing the banner-holders, who was clearly a seasoned veteran at dealing with energetic college students. A few friends and I met Father Frank Pavone, National Director of Priests for Life, and Pamela Tebow, Tim Tebow’s mom, who have both been speaking and fighting for life for years. Additionally, we were privileged to spend the entirety of the trip with four priests and a number of members of University of Mary’s administration, who are no strangers to the pro-life movement. This year was Monsignor Shea’s 14th March for Life.

We heard often that we, the youth, give hope. Numerous times during the march, all kinds of adults told me that my classmates and I are inspiring, that we make them proud. I am thrilled that we can be a beacon of hope, but what touched me the most was that we have incredible pro-life leaders to look up to. We are the Pro-life Generation. We have energy and fire to fight for the truth of the sanctity of life. If you need an example of this, just look up my friend Katrina Gallic’s speech before the march!

We ought to thank our pro-life ancestors for this. We must learn from somewhere the courage of perseverance. Seeing and personally interacting with our bold leaders struck me with a deep gratitude for the great inheritance I have received in the pro-life movement. My generation would not be pro-life if generations before had not started the change. These people, these early warriors all started the change by being present at the first marches, praying outside abortion clinics, and standing by their countercultural beliefs in the public square. At the beginning, when the sanctity of life needed defense, they showed up with love. Then, they continued with perseverance. They show us that presence is where mercy starts, but not where it ends.

Cardinal Dolan, Fr. Pavone, Msgr. Shea, the devoted church ladies and gentlemen who pray outside Red River Women’s Clinic every Wednesday, and everyone who has made any difference in the pro-life movement, began by showing up in whatever capacity they were able. In all reality, that’s how Jesus began his ministry as well. Through the mystery of the Incarnation, Jesus showed up in the midst of all human suffering bringing mercy to the entire world, and he came as a defenseless little one.

The wallpaper on my phone has a quote from Pope St. John Paul II on it that reads, “Never tire of firmly speaking out in defense of life from its conception and do not be deterred from the commitment to defend the dignity of every human person with courageous determination.

Christ is with you: be not afraid!” Christ is with you. I thought of that many times during the march, and I absolutely believe it. This is Christ’s fight in which we are partaking, and he most definitely is beside us.

One of my friends told me that what touched her most about the march was that she truly felt that Mary was leading us. With our many rosaries throughout the entirety of the trip, our big University of Mary banners leading the march, and our singing of the Salve Regina while marching, I have no doubt that this is true.

With Mary leading us and Christ with us, we were there as a community. We, the University of Mary, were there representing each other. We – human beings, children of God – were there representing each other in a broad sense, most especially those who were not given the opportunity to join us. We showed up for them, the most defenseless little ones. With the grace of God and prayers of Our Lady surrounding us, we will endure in showing up with mercy in defense of all life. That is why we march.