Hundreds gathered this past weekend in Philadelphia to call for an end to legalized abortion, 48 years – and some 61 million abortions — after two Supreme Court decisions removed protections for the unborn.
With the support of the archdiocesan Office for Life and Family, the Pro-Life Union of Greater Philadelphia sponsored the Jan. 23 event, which opened with Mass celebrated by Archbishop Nelson Pérez at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul. Joining the archbishop were 21 concelebrants, including Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre and Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Coffey of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, who served as homilist.
“This is the most crowded I’ve seen the Cathedral in 12 months,” said Archbishop Pérez, addressing some 1,000 in-person attendees spread throughout the pews and the adjacent chapel, as well as several hundred livestream and post-event viewers.
The “Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice” was celebrated with violet vestments, as the occasion marked “a day of penance because … of what this country did” by legalizing abortion, said the archbishop.
On Jan. 22, 1973, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that a fetus was not a person but a “potential life” without constitutional rights of its own, and limited state regulation of abortions according to each trimester. That same day, the court’s Doe v. Bolton decision prohibited state regulation of abortion during all trimesters if the procedure was sought for reasons of maternal health, including “physical, emotional, psychological, familial” factors or the woman’s age.
The power of prayer, peaceful witness
In the face of the U.S.’s 2,000 abortions per day, Archbishop Pérez stressed “the power of prayer” as “amazing and transformative,” and particularly remembered “women and couples … who might be contemplating an abortion, and might be on their way to an abortion mill right now.”
Cathedral rector Father Dennis Gill also observed that the liturgy coincided with the memorial of the Espousals of Mary and Joseph, who he said “stand out … as witnesses to the sacredness of human life, in the events that surrounded the conception and birth of our Lord.”
In his homily, Bishop Coffey recalled the day in 1973 when, as a 12-year-old, he was informed of the “truly awful” Roe v. Wade decision by his father, a medical doctor and founding member of the organization Physicians for Life. The bishop and his family have long been active supporters of the pro-life movement, with Bishop Coffey even finding himself arrested several times before his priesthood for peacefully protesting outside of abortion clinics.
“You have no idea how much fun it is for a young man to go to jail with his mother,” said the bishop, recounting one Good Friday detention 27 years ago. Speaking after the Mass, he added that a separate arrest had led to a week in an Atlanta jail, an experience he described as “the best retreat (he had) ever been on.”
At the same time, said Bishop Coffey, the arrests (which did not impede his appointment as a Navy chaplain) were less important to advancing the pro-life cause than “prayerful witness” and seeking “a change of heart” for those who support abortion.
“They are not the enemy — Satan, the father of lies, is,” he said. “And we pray for conversion.”
Recognizing the full humanity of individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities is essential, said Bishop Coffey, even as countries such as Denmark and Iceland “brag they have eliminated Down syndrome” through prenatal testing and abortion.
“We believe what our Catholic Church has taught for 2,000 years, that we are all made in the image and likeness of God, and that is what gives us our dignity and worth,” he said.
Referencing a recent statement by Archbishop José Gomez, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, Bishop Coffey added that “these truths of our faith are also reflected in our Declaration of Independence, signed right down the block here in Philadelphia.”
Rather than condemnation, those who have endured the heartache of abortion can find the “healing, love and forgiveness that only Jesus can give,” said Bishop Coffey.
‘A human being, not a choice’
Following the Mass, participants streamed in procession through Center City, led by a bagpipe brigade and holding aloft an array of signs – 48 of which were images of an infant in the womb, one placard for each year the Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions have stood.
Terry Parlee of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Buckingham created a poster featuring two ultrasound pictures of her son Luke, along with his high school senior portrait.
“Choose life,” said Luke, who plans to attend Pepperdine University after graduation. “Being a young person, I feel like it’s even more my responsibility to convey to my peers the truth.”
For 22-year-old Brandyn Graham of New Castle, Delaware, ending abortion is a matter of racial equality.
“One third of the Black population today — 22.5 million Black babies – have been aborted,” said Graham. “People don’t understand (that) Planned Parenthood was created by a white supremacist. I want to make a change in the whole world, and especially in my community, where this is just such an important issue.”
After quickly sidestepping some six or seven counterdemonstrators who attempted to block their path, participants paused for prayer in front of the Philadelphia Women’s Center, where over 6,500 abortions are performed each year.
The group then proceeded without incident to Independence Mall for a rally, which Archbishop Pérez opened with prayer after a performance by singer-songwriter Jack Terzian. Among the speakers was author, veteran and mother Kathy Barnette, who in an emotional address disclosed that she herself was “the byproduct of a rape.
“And I am a human being,” said Barnette, speaking through tears. “I am not a choice. I am not just a lump of cells. … I am a person who has a purpose imparted to them.”
Rally host Alison Centofante of the nonprofit Live Action said the pro-life movement aligns with “science, medicine, embryology, truth and logic.”
Participant Mickey Kelly, a member of St. Francis Xavier Parish in Philadelphia, agreed, stating that advances in prenatal imaging have underscored the reality of life in the womb.
“I think the ultrasound has been a secret weapon in the fight against abortion,” said Kelly. “A picture’s worth a thousand words, and if ultrasounds had been around before Roe v. Wade, I think the tide would have turned right then and there.”
Now 31, Kelly also said he feels “the (pro-life) movement has gotten younger” – a shift for which he’s grateful.
“I’m not alone in this fight,” he said. “It gives me hope, and it also give me faith to become a better Catholic.”
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