APPLETON — Amid calls of “Have fun,” “Keep in touch,” “Call when you can,” and “I love you!” parents and friends sent 120 young people and 40 chaperones — including five priests of the diocese — off in three motorcoach busses. (Individual parishes also sent youth groups, increasing the number to around 190.)
They were headed to the nation’s capital and the annual March for Life on Jan. 19. This year, on Jan. 22, was the 45th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States.
The diocesan pilgrimage began with the annual Respect Life Mass held Jan. 16 at St. Pius X Church in Appleton. Bishop David Ricken, joined by 12 priests of the diocese as concelebrants, prayed with and blessed the pilgrims.
“I will be accompanying you in prayer throughout your days there and (with prayers) for safe travel back,” Bishop Ricken assured the young people.
Two years ago, Bishop Ricken joined the pilgrim group from Wisconsin as they gathered in Washington.
“When I was there,” the bishop said, “I was very surprised because I heard speech after speech by young people that said your generation considers yourselves the pro-life generation. Is that true?” One loud “yes” came from the assembly at the Mass, followed by loud applause.
“We want to assist you in making that claim that you are the pro-life generation,” the bishop continued.
“Which means that, somehow during your lifetime, this whole thing (legalized abortion) is going to get turned around, through your advocacy, through your prayers and through your expressing your will as a generation that abortions be stopped.”
The bishop added that those who attend the annual March for Life — March officials estimated that more than 100,000 were in attendance this year — used to be “mostly older people.” Now, he added, attendees are “mostly young people, which is another huge, huge shift. I imagine that’s why they call you the pro-life generation.”
Bishop Ricken shared a story from his early priesthood in Pueblo, Colo. He had been called to the hospital because an elderly woman who was dying had asked for a priest. Bishop Ricken noticed that she was not at peace and, after some conversation, learned that she had had an abortion as a young woman. She had never been able to admit that sin in confession.
For the young priest, it “was a heart wrenching moment. But I remember that I instructed her that Jesus is full of compassion and mercy. There is no sin that is beyond the gaze of his love or the merciful ocean of his forgiveness.”
Finally, he said, that woman accepted the Lord’s mercy and wept “tears of healing and tears of joy.”
Bishop Ricken told the young people that he has often returned to that event “as I strive to speak very clearly to help young people avoid the terrible trap and the lies associated with an abortion.”
He added that he knew that “in this assembly tonight” there might be a person who had had an abortion or had been associated with an abortion.
“It’s important for you to know,” Bishop Ricken said, “that the mercy of Jesus is like an ocean and that he’s pouring out that mercy to you.”
He added, “Far be it from anyone of us to sit in judgment of anyone. That’s the Lord’s job. And the Lord always mitigates his judgment with justice and mercy.”
Besides abortion, the bishop also mentioned “the trap” of pornography and how it is “one of the worst crutches you can lean on.”
However, he added, “You can ask the Holy Spirit to restore your own personal lost innocence. The Holy Spirit is generous in granting us that because he knows our world is so polluted. … The good news is (that) Jesus is here; he is walking with us. He doesn’t want anyone to be enslaved to anything or to any other person. He wants us to love him, to make him our very best friend.”
Members of the St. Gianna Clinic, assisted by the Order of Malta, provided pilgrims with prayer cards, first aid kits and Band-Aid kits for any “blisters encountered on your wonderful walk.”
One of those attending the Mass was Michelle Lopez, who was there to see her son, Alex, a junior at Xavier High School, off. Lopez, a member of St. Mary Parish in Greenville, said her own mother, Monica, had started a crisis pregnancy center years ago in Milwaukee.
“So we have a long family history (of supporting life),” she said, adding that she was proud that Alex had asked to go on the trip.
Also at the Mass was Martha Muniz of St. Mary Parish in Menasha. She said her 8-year-old son, Nicholas Cavarrubio, had asked to come to the Jan. 16 Mass.
When asked why he had wanted to come, Nicholas replied, “The bishop’s there — Duh!”