Catholic Herald Staff
Almost 80 people from around the Diocese of Superior made the 20-plus-hour trip via motor coach to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life Jan. 18.
Chris Hurtubise, of the Diocese’s Office of Catholic Formation, made clear this was a pilgrimage.
“Everything we did was rooted in prayer, and nothing was done for pure entertainment’s sake,” he said.
Two buses left Rice Lake on Tuesday, Jan. 15. In Hurtubise’s first talk to the group, he challenged the pilgrims to be effective witnesses for Christ and for life – by being joyful, kind and selfless.
“Throughout the week, it was incredible to see how everyone lived out that challenge,” Hurtubise said.
Noting the uncertainties encountered along the way, he added, “From the weather and the traffic, to the government shutdown and the incredible amount of time it takes for 75 people to use the bathroom. Nevertheless, over and over again, our group far exceeded my expectations and proved to be very worthy ambassadors for the church and for the pro-life cause.”
This was the first year the Diocese of Superior had organized its own group, not joining organizational forces with any neighboring dioceses.
Each day of the trip included Mass, the rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet, part of the Liturgy of the Hours; most also offered opportunities for Eucharistic adoration and reconciliation. Formation was included daily, both as talks at the hotel and activities on the bus.
While in the nation’s capitol, the diocesan pilgrims visited the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception where two Superior diocese priests – Frs. John Anderson and Gerard Willger – concelebrated mass. The group went to the St. John Paul II National Shrine, the Lincoln Memorial and Holocaust Museum. After the March itself, the group accepted an invitation to visit Congressman Sean Duffy’s office.
With a snowstorm approaching, the group had to leave earlier than expected, causing them to miss the Students for Life of American Conference. Hurtubise called this “a huge loss,” but said, “praise God for modern technology; we were able to livestream much of the conference on our buses.”
Hurtubise’s most poignant memory was a three-hour stop at an empty Denny’s restaurant on the return drive to Wisconsin, necessitated by the snow and poor driving conditions.
“All of us were exhausted and anxious about the weather, but the restaurant was filled with laughter and joy the entire time we were there. I never heard a single negative thing said or saw a single negative bit of body language. Our pilgrims truly received with hope and joy whatever the Lord had in store for us. It was beautiful,” he said.
Kendra Mitchell, youth minister in New Richmond, brought first-time pilgrims for whom she said the experience was “hugely impactful.” She echoed Hurtubise’s comments on the joy lived among the group.
She also noted the atmosphere of sacrifice, every day rooted in prayer with Mass as the focal point.
“Driving on a bus for 24-27 hours is not necessarily leisurely. Nor is it convenient to travel with 80 people, often causing times of waiting: in lines, for the bus, for the bathroom, for snacks, for food, etc.
“All of this was done with purpose and positive attitudes,” Mitchell said. “There was always so much joy even in the sacrifices.”
It was difficult for the youth minister to put her “graced experience” into words and pinpoint one highlight.
“I think the combination of it all was what made the experience,”she said. She did note that the sites visited (St. John Paul II shrine, Holocaust Museum and rally) before the March itself were significant in setting the stage for why they were there. They offered information and a chance to reflection and discussion that “created an open mind and heart, and extra encouragement to do our part in marching for respect of all life.”
“It was a beautiful day to be part of such a big movement, highlighted with the sunshine peaking out as we walked up Capital Hill,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell summarized that the March for Life pilgrimage was a life-changing experience for all in her group, “some yet to see or understand the impact this had on their lives.”
One whose heart was particularly changed was a New Richmond high school student who, with support from her peers, returned determined to start a Students For Life club in her public school.
Freshman Austin White, parishioner of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Merrill, shared that what impacted him the most was “seeing just the sheer amount of people at the March for pro-life versus the pro-choice movement.”
Not expecting the size of the crowds, or that U.S. Vice President Mike Pence would address the marchers in person, White said he would love to go again and invite friends to share the experience.
“It was astounding and made me feel like we’re actually making a big difference.”
Rebecca Rell, a sophomore from Merrill had no idea what she was getting herself into when she signed up for the pilgrimage. As one of only two people from her parish, accompanied by their youth minister Erich Wallace, she was nervous about not knowing others.
“Little did I know that the decision to come along was going to be one of the best ones I have ever made in my life,” she added.
She knew the March for Life was an annual event, but didn’t think it was a big deal. She didn’t know upwards of 600,000 people attended.
“I didn’t know how huge of a deal it was until I got there… They all come for the same purpose: to protect life and to be the voices for the ones who don’t have a voice,” Rell said.
What affected her most was the stark contrast between the throngs of those marching for the protection of what “the world tries to tell us is just a ball of tissue and that it’s not living.”
She added, “But we all know it is. From the moment the sperm and egg join, a life is created. Life is unique from day one. How can you listen to the heartbeat of an unborn baby and say that it doesn’t have life?”
Quoting the 2017 statistic of the number of abortions performed in the United States – 882,000 – Rell said, “That’s 882,000 lives that didn’t get a chance to be a part of this world where we can be whatever we want. They didn’t even get a fair shot. Not even a little chance to get to be the person they dream of being. Life deserves to be lived. Don’t you think?”
The high schooler doesn’t want to sit on the sidelines watching days pass without anything changing. She doesn’t want to be the person that waits for someone else to do something. She said, “If someone doesn’t step up to the plate, nothing is going to happen.
“I want to be that person. The one that goes against the crowd.”
She knows many will not agree, and she is okay with that. She does hope that anyone given the opportunity to participate in the March for Life will do so, believing they would come away with similar convictions.
“All it takes is one person to make a difference in the world. Those unborn babies deserve to be fought for, because, who knows, they could grow up to be the next Mandela, Mother Teresa, or John Paul II. They may not have a voice, but we do, so use it.
“The March for Life changed me. It could change you too,” Rell concluded.