Multinational Group of 15,000 Gathered in Defense of Unborn

ROME, MAY 17, 2012 ( The monumental ruins of the Colosseum loomed large over those gathering last Sunday for the second annual March for Life in Italy. But those darkened vestiges of an empire that reveled in death were brightened by the banners, balloons and songs of the marchers.

The Rome March for Life seemed like a triumphal parade of olden times, as it started down the Via dei Fori Imperiali, a road opened by Mussolini to review his military troops. The turnout was a victory in itself. The first March for Life in Italy, held in Desenzano near Lago di Garda on May 28, 2011, had drawn 600 people and only about 5,000 were expected last Saturday. Instead, an estimated 15,000 filled the road, much to the amazement of the tourists who were trying to get their photos of the Colosseum.

The route started along the Imperial Fora, built in the wake of military victories; the ruins of the temples to Mars the Avenger, Venus Genetrix and Emperor Trajan stood in impotent silence as families, religious sisters, clerics and many, many young people prayed, cheered and sang in the streets.

The Italians were out in force; lay organizations, religious orders, several of the Pontifical Universities in Rome stood side by side with the Catholic associations of pharmacists and doctors. Representatives of Parliamentarians for Life as well as senators also took to the streets. Roman Mayor Gianni Alemanno walked at the head of the march wearing the tricolored sash of his office over his Sunday morning stroll clothes. The march enjoyed the official patronage of the City of Rome and the mayor put 200 city buses at the disposal of those coming from outside the Eternal City.

Mayor Alemanno was immediately taken to task by his political opponents, who described the initiative as a demonstration of “extremists, racists and homophobes.” Unfortunately the limited and sterile vocabulary of the pro-abortion party seems to be unable to expand even in the rich Italian language. And, as usual, their data is wrong. The March for Life in the United States is the largest peaceful demonstration in the United States. In ancient Rome, a gathering of a quarter of a million people would come to brawl while watching the deadly chariot races in the Circus Maximus, but in the March for Life, the same number come together in prayer and celebration of life.

The ranks were swelled by many other nationalities. Cardinal Raymond Burke was joyously greeted not only by many young American university students but also by the Italians who were proud to claim him as one of their own. More than 200 people from Poland came down for the march, carrying flags bearing the beloved image of Blessed John Paul II in memory of his tireless efforts in defense of the unborn. Romanians, French, Spanish, Germans, Belgians, Hungarian, citizens of the Czech Republic and many others formed a European union of life, and there was even a young Nigerian who spoke on behalf of the first bioethical institute in his country and the fight for life in Africa.

The massive parade turned at Piazza Venezia, leaving behind the ruins of the pagan city for the vibrant beauty of Christian Rome. Walking along the route of the great saints of the Catholic Restoration, the cortege passed by the Gesu, once home to St. Ignatius, the Chiesa Nuova, built for St. Philip Neri, and St. Andrea della Valle home to St. Gaetano Thiene, founder of the Theatines and the saint of Providence -- all reminders that the Church has faced hard battles in the past.

But the march had its own saint to honor. One of the speakers was Gianna Emanuela Mola, daughter of St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian pediatrician who refused an abortion after the discovery of a tumor on her uterus when she was pregnant with Gianna Emanuela. She gave birth to her daughter and died seven days later. Blessed John Paul II canonized her in 2004.

Italian abortion law is more stringent than that of the United States. Most Italians have never heard of a partial birth abortion, and upon learning of the practice, recoil in disbelief. Abortion was legalized in Italy on May 28, 1978, for the first trimester. Second trimester abortion is permitted only when the life of the woman would be at risk if the pregnancy is carried to term or the fetus carries genetic or other serious malformations that would put the mother at risk of serious psychological or physical consequences.

Abortions are performed for free in national hospitals as part of the state health plan, but also require a week waiting period between the medical authorization and the actual abortion.

While the Italians rejected a proposal to repeal the law in 1981, a far larger proportion (88%) refused an amendment aimed at removing restrictions.

Partially for this reason, the issue of abortion is not as strongly felt as in the United States, but also because the abortion industry/lobby of Planned Parenthood has only a small foothold here, operating under the name of l'Unione Italiana dei Centri di Educazione Matrimoniale e Prematrimoniale.

Energies didn’t flag, and spirits never sank during the two-mile walk through Rome’s beautiful streets to the Castel Sant’Angelo. Again, the city itself provided the perfect backdrop for the march. Crossing the bridge of angels, each holding an instrument of Christ’s passion, the giant Mausoleum of Hadrian seemed to await on the other side of the river, but a statue of the archangel Michael perched gently atop the tomb promised hope.

Placed there in memory of the great plague of 590, which claimed hundreds of lives until the prayers and petitions of the Roman people were answered by the vision of the archangel, it seemed that the angel, after 1.2 billion abortions since 1980, was a vision of peace for the unborn.

The Via della Conciliazione, or Road of Reconciliation, was the final stretch of the march for those who chose to attend a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of the basilica. This wonderful morning closed with disciples of many nations gathered around the tomb of St Peter, the Prince of the Apostles who died to bring Christ’s message of love and life to a cynical empire.

The 2012 March for Life was the best Mother’s Day gift imaginable.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She is author of The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy's Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de' Medici.