Youth on fire

| Bishop Lee Piché | January 30, 2014 | 0 Comments

Archbishop John Nienstedt has not yet returned to writing his column. Bishop Lee Piché, auxiliary bishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis, offers the following guest column for this issue.

My experience at the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

Joleen Johnson, left, and Katie Wratkowski, seniors at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, stand with Bishop Lee Piché during the national March for Life Jan. 22 in Washington, D.C.  Photo courtesy of Lisa Boris

Joleen Johnson, left, and Katie Wratkowski, seniors at Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, stand with Bishop Lee Piché during the national March for Life Jan. 22 in Washington, D.C. Photo courtesy of Lisa Boris

The weather in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 22 was not quite as cold as it was in St. Paul, but it was plenty cold. And a strong wind blew across the Mall where an estimated crowd of 400,000 people had assembled for the rally and March for Life.

I had the privilege of connecting up with a group of youth and their adult leaders who had gotten there via an overnight trip on four buses. Most were from the archdiocese; but joining them were contingents from the dioceses of St. Cloud and Superior, Wis. All-in-all we numbered around 200.

I met them after flying in, arriving at the front end of a winter storm, at around midday on Tuesday. They had already been in the D.C. area for a couple days.

When I arrived, they were in the middle of a day-long conference sponsored by the Students for Life of America (SFLA). There were probably between 2,000 and 3,000 youth at the conference hosted by a Baptist congregation in a mega-church complex that was large enough to accommodate so many.

The energy in that place was electric. Speakers shared vital information on various topics related to abortion and the sanctity of human life, on strategies for promoting the pro-life cause and on the virtue of chastity. Time and again, they urged and encouraged the youth to embrace the call to be leaders of a new generation, the Pro-Life Generation. Their response was enthusiastic.

The conference ended at about 8 p.m., after which we boarded our buses and made our way back to the hotel. At the end of a long day of speakers and panel discussions, high-energy music and jumping up and down, I assumed that these young apostles and their leaders would be ready for a good night’s rest — particularly because I had been told by one of the leaders that she had gotten only about four hours of sleep the night before.

But, instead, the group immediately gathered again in the hotel ballroom for Mass. They had decided to wait until I arrived so that we could celebrate the Sacred Liturgy together. As tired as they were at that late hour, they were attentive and engaged, singing and responding and offering the gift of their love and worship of the Lord, hungry for the Bread of Life, and joyful in their praise.

Carried away by their infectious joy, the preacher went a little long (that was me). By the time all the post-liturgy announcements were conveyed and important instructions for the morrow were imparted, it was after 10:30. Another late night.

Fortified by prayer, Eucharist

It was still dark outside when, not long after 6 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, the young people began gathering again for prayer. Many came early to spend some time in eucharistic adoration even before our morning prayer service, which was at 7 a.m.

All packed, with bags loaded on the buses, having wolfed down a quick breakfast, they were ready to board at the appointed time. It was then that we learned that bus No. 1 had a problem, and while it was being repaired we would all need to cram onto the three other buses. The stalwart pilgrims took it in stride.

Our first stop was the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the National Shrine. We were joined by some others from the Twin Cities who had come out for the march — a group of about 50 from St. Michael and St. Albert parishes, and a group of 37 college students from the University of St. Thomas.

We nearly filled the crypt chapel where we celebrated morning Mass together. The sacristy staff, and the local priest who had been scheduled for that Mass, were very gracious — in effect, we “commandeered” the regular 8:30 a.m. Mass at the shrine. Thus fortified by the Eucharist, reminded again of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice of love and the power of his resurrection, we then ventured out into the cold.

At first it wasn’t so bad. As long as we were walking and staying close together, there was a semblance of warmth. Our intention was to get to the Mall early to be near the front once the march began. This entailed standing on the frozen tundra for some 45 minutes before the hour-long program of speeches began at noon. A bitter wind was blowing, and the word was that the wind-chill factor was 15 degrees below zero. We were freezing!

I should probably admit: I was freezing. Many of the youth were cold, but I never heard a single complaint. They continued to shout out the “chants” that they had practiced: “Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them: We are pro life! Super duper pro life!” “I, I believe, I believe that, I believe that we’re pro life, I believe that we’re pro life!” (This last part executed with a boisterous jumping up and down with hands in the air.)

We marched along Constitution Avenue up to and past the Supreme Court building, with the Capitol building in view. In that vast throng of marchers, our group somehow managed to stay fairly close together, more or less located in a rectangular moving space between four flags: the Minnesota flag and a specially made banner from the Diocese of Superior in front, and the papal flag and flag of the United States in the back.

By the time we reached the end of the march and reconnected at our pre-arranged meeting place, I could no longer feel my toes, and it was difficult to bend my knees because of the cold. Physically, I was miserable and in pain. But my spirit was elated, and I was sustained once again by the warmth in the hearts of those young witnesses. They were on fire with love for Christ and by their determination to speak out for the most vulnerable of our sisters and brothers in defense of their right to life.

Proud of our youth

We live in a world shaped by a culture of self-gratification, which often results in coldness of heart. The selfishness that is so prevalent makes for a cold reception to newcomers: the pre-born, the immigrant, the outsider. Our widespread rejection of God and neighbor makes for a cold planet at times — for some, a bitterly cold environment.

But last week I witnessed an amazing and wonderful reality: we have in this local Church a community of youth who are on fire.

They went out into the cold, braved the bitter winds, faced the elements of an adverse environment, smiled and sang, praised God and encouraged one another with enthusiastic shouts, found warmth and strength in their togetherness, and gave powerful witness to the fact this indeed is the Pro-Life Generation.

I was and still am very proud of them and the many other youth who, like them, are part of a movement that is going to set the world on fire.

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