How do you get a crowd of 40,000-plus excited for a two-hour walk down one of Rome’s busiest streets on a hot afternoon in May? Two words: Gladiator soundtrack. As in the United States, May 10 was also Mother’s Day in Italy, and what better way to honour mothers than to take part in the Marcia per la Vita, Rome’s 5th annual March for Life. The March began right in the middle of the Via della Conciliazione—the long impressive avenue leading up to St. Peter’s Square. To the left, the Basilica dedicated to St. Peter, crucified in witness to the Lord of Life; to our right, Castel San’ Angelo, the tomb of a pagan emperor now topped with the statue of St. Michael the Archangel. And yes, the Gladiator score blaring from the sound system. Not a bad backdrop against which to gather a lively crowd in defense of life. Papa Francesco got things started. In his Regina Caeli address that morning, Pope Francis acknowledged those present for the March and reminded a packed St. Peter’s Square,
“It is important to collaborate together to promote and defend life…And, talking about life, today many countries celebrate Mother’s Day: we remember with gratitude and affection all mothers. Now I turn to the mothers who are here in the Piazza: are there any here? Yes? There are, moms? A round of applause for them, for moms who are in Piazza!”
Like other walks and marches across the world, the Rome March has grown in size every year. The crowd was mostly Italian, which was to be expected, but was surprisingly international. American Mary Rathke spoke and held a sign that read, “Conceived from rape, I love my life!” Rathke serves on the board of Save the 1, an organization dedicated to speaking for the dignity of children conceived in rape. She addressed the crowd saying, “I’m not a rapist’s child, I’m not a monster’s child, I’m a mother’s child and I’m a child of the most high God. I’m made in His image, and my life matters and if my life matters then we must defend all life.”
The route took us over the Tiber river, down Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II, and past Piazza Venezia. In addition to those walking in defense of unborn human life, the Marcia per la Vita also included a significant number of anti-euthanasia signs. There is currently a major push in Italy to pass pro-suicide legislation and the country recently had a national legal debate following the tragic case of Eluana Englaro, a woman in a persistent vegetative state who died in 2009 after her father fought to have her feeding tube removed. Englaro is sometimes referred to as “Italy’s Terri Schiavo.” A number of March participants carried her image as they walked. It’s fitting that the Marcia would highlight offences against human life in its beginning and at its end since, in Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II observed that crimes against life at the beginning and at the end—abortion and euthanasia specifically—both spring from the same fundamental error; a failure to recognize in the weak and vulnerable the dignity proper to the human person:
“Here though we shall concentrate particular attention on another category of attacks, affecting life in its earliest and in its final stages…It is not only that in generalized opinion these attacks tend no longer to be considered as “crimes”; paradoxically they assume the nature of “rights”, to the point that the State is called upon to give them legal recognition and to make them available through the free services of health-care personnel. Such attacks strike human life at the time of its greatest frailty, when it lacks any means of self-defence. Even more serious is the fact that, most often, those attacks are carried out in the very heart of and with the complicity of the family — the family which by its nature is called to be the “sanctuary of life”. (n. 11)
Notice how frighteningly prophetic his warning is: “…to the point that the State is called upon to give them legal recognition and to make them available through the free services of health-care personnel.” This is precisely what we see and hear in pro-abortion and even some pro-suicide rhetoric. Some advocates of so-called “death with dignity” (I can barely even type those words…) legislation may say that they’re not calling for it to be provided for by medical services, but in the end they will call for exactly that. Watch. The line between caring and killing is already blurred and the language of “rights” is already used.
It’s especially disturbing, as John Paul II notes, that both abortion and euthanasia also have in common the tendency to be “carried out in the heart of the family.” This is evident enough in the case of abortion—a boyfriend or parent pressures a woman into making an unbearable choice—but we also see it in cases where family members may condone or even suggest suicide for a loved one who may be suffering from a terminal illness. Legislative hearings often feature family members of the terminally ill or of individuals who have already taken their lives arguing in favour of suicide legislation. You’ll recall that Brittany Maynard’s mother offered key testimony in favour of California’s SB 128, the so-called “aid-in-dying” bill.
Marcia per la Vita organizer Virginia Coda Nuziante rallied the crowd at the end of the March, fittingly enough, at the Piazza della Bocca della Verita—Piazza of the Mouth of Truth: “We appeal to all the mothers of Italy and the world and let them stand up to this culture of death, stand up to this dictatorship of relativism and nihilism.”
Attacks on life also constitute attacks on the family. How to remedy? Save the family. The Pope has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the family, especially lately, and in his Wednesday catechises. The upcoming synod will no doubt focus on the role the family will play in saving the culture. The day before the Marcia per la Vita, he told the bishops of Mozambique, in Rome for their ad lumina visit, “Do not skimp in supporting the family and in the defense of life from conception to natural death…The family must always be defended as the main source of fraternity, respect for others and the primary path of peace.”
And this is one sign of great hope. Both the Marcia per la Vita and the West Coast Walks for Life are dominated by families and young people. I know the same is true for the D.C. March and the others like it around the world. The media meme that the only people who attend such events are “old white guys” is pure nonsense. If you’ve been to any March or Walk for life, you know that the demographic probably least represented is the “old white guy”. Rome was no different. It was families everywhere. Kids chased balloons all down the Corso Vittorio Emmanuele II while the nonni were out in full force, corralling their grandkids…and anyone else’s within earshot. His Eminence Raymond Cardinal Burke joined the March, as he has the past four years, and even stopped and blessed our boys on the forehead. Our youngest just held up his red balloon, expecting His Eminence to bless it as well (he did not).
For better or worse, Italians have a special affection for all things American (I’ve seen the Stars and Stripes on more handbags and articles of clothing here in Rome than I ever have in the States) and following suit, abortion has been legal in Italy since 1978, five short years after Roe vs. Wade. More than six-million abortions have occurred in Italy since then. Christians converted a pagan Roman culture once before. It was the Christian reverence for life that transformed Rome. “See how they love one another!” the ancient pagans would marvel, shocked that the members of this strange new cult refused to practice abortion and infanticide—that they had the audacity to care for babies abandoned simply because they were “unwanted” and care for the sick when no one else would. And maybe it was that joyful setting, maybe the soundtrack to my second favourite movie, but I’ll admit that standing wedged among the traffic-jam of families with their strollers, the vocal Italian youth, the equally vocal Italian nonni, the clergy and religious, I was as hopeful for the future of the culture of life as I have ever been.