Faithful march, advocate on Virginia Pro-Life Day

Bishop Barry C. Knestout joins a couple with the group from Roanoke Catholic School as thousands of faithful march down Broad Street on Virginia Pro-Life Day, Feb. 21, 2024. (Photo/Michael MIckle)

“Let them live! Let them live!”

Passionate cries reverberated in downtown Richmond’s Capitol Square on Wednesday, Feb. 21. The area was packed for the annual Virginia Pro-Life Day, when thousands of people from every part of Virginia gather to defend life.

“It’s important to be part of Virginia Pro-Life Day, because we are all beloved sons and daughters of God,” said Kate Heintzelman, theology and religion teacher at St. Joseph School, Petersburg.

“It’s beautiful and necessary to celebrate and uphold the sanctity of life at all stages,” she added.

The day is a collaborative effort by the Virginia Catholic Conference, The Family Foundation,

Hundreds march down 14th Street on Virginia Pro-Life Day, Feb. 21, 2024. (Photo/Michael MIckle)

Virginia Society for Human Life, March for Life, and the dioceses of Arlington and Richmond. Bishop Barry C. Knestout was joined by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, of the Diocese of Arlington, for the rally.

Virginia Pro-Life Day is comprised of two parts: advocacy in the morning, then a rally and state March for Life around noon.

Catherine French and Analea Jimenez, two eight-year-olds from St. Anne, Bristol, both said their favorite part of the day was the march. “It was just important to me,” said French.

“I was very impressed with the number of young people there. What makes it so important to be there is for our voices to be heard, because we’re not the silent majority – but the ignored majority,” said Dawn Smith, a parishioner of Christ the King, Abingdon.

Father Gino Rossi, pastor of St. Joseph, Petersburg, told The Catholic Virginian, “We had a great day,” saying they prayed the rosary on the bus ride to Richmond. The group was made up of 22 students from St. Joseph School and seven adults.

Father Rossi said they stopped by St. Peter’s Pro-Cathedral, Richmond, after the march, where adoration was underway. The large group was seen excitedly posing for photos on the steps of St. Peter with Bishop Knestout and Father Michael Boehling, the vicar general.

Roanoke Catholic School also had an impressive showing – with 38 students and eight adults, including Father William Buckley, parochial vicar of the Basilica of St. Andrew, Roanoke. The group, wearing matching, light blue sweatshirts, could be easily spotted in the large crowds that day.

Stephanie Oliver said this was the first time the Roanoke Celtics had a chance to send a group to the event since 2019. Many of the students were inspired to participate after hearing a presentation from Blue Ridge Women’s Center, a ministry that offers support to men and women facing unplanned pregnancies. The students said it was meaningful for them to take part in the march and know that they are not alone in their beliefs.

Advocating for life

Jeff Caruso, of the Virginia Catholic Conference, said more than 650 people showed up in the morning to meet with their legislators at the General Assembly Offices. They urged the state senators and delegates to support legislation and programs that defend all human life.

One bill that went to the floor during this General Assembly session was the proposed adoption of the federal Hyde Amendment. The 1977 law blocks federal funds from being used to pay for abortion except in the case of rape, incest, and risk to the life of the mother.

Santiago “Jojo” Camano, a parishioner of Holy Spirit, Virginia Beach, advocated for the adoption of the Hyde Amendment, because Virginia law currently allows state taxpayer money to fund more abortions than the federal law requires.

He spoke to his representative, Sen. Christie New Craig (R-19), about his experience as the father of a son with disabilities. Under Virginia law, moms on Medicaid can use state funds to pay for abortions if their child might be born with disabilities. Camano said in 1999, he and his wife were advised to abort their son, who would be born with multiple limb deformities.

“We told [the doctors] that abortion is not even a question,” Camano told The Catholic Virginian. “God makes crooked paths straight.”

Their son, Joseph, will graduate in May from the University of Virginia Law School. He uses a wheelchair to get around, and while getting his undergraduate degree at Randolph-Macon College, he went to Japan on his own to do research.

“People said he would not go anywhere in life,” Camano said. “Now, he’s been to places I’ve never been.”

At the General Assembly, Camano said he learned about other bills that offended his conscience.

A bill proposing a “fundamental right to reproductive freedom” – which would protect abortion through nine months of pregnancy for any reason – will be tabled until 2025. A bill that would have made assisted suicide legal also stalled this session.

Ted Quinter, a parishioner of St. John the Apostle, Virginia Beach, was another advocate in the crowded office of Sen. Craig. Twenty-one adults from the parish were joined by 13 students from Catholic High School, Virginia Beach.

“It was good to meet with our freshman senator,” said Quinter. “It gives us a chance to gauge her level of support for life issues.”

Quinter called Sen. Craig “supportive.” Meanwhile, other advocates were facing more tense situations.

Julia Szabuniewicz, a parishioner of St. Benedict, Richmond, met with Sen. Lamont Bagby (D-14). She said that he reiterated his pro-choice positions strongly and there wasn’t much debate. Still, she called the interaction “really productive.”

“My experience is that [many legislators] only talk to young people who are pro-choice,” said Szabuniewicz, a former Virginia Catholic Conference lobbyist.

“People need to know that there are young people who are pro-life,” she added. “Now, they know that we’re here, and we’re watching.”

More than 30 advocates for life, including over a dozen students from Catholic High School, Virginia Beach, packed into the office of Christie New Craig (R-19) on Virginia Pro-Life Day, Feb. 21, 2024. (Photo/D. Hunter Reardon)

‘Expression of hope’

A much larger crowd gathered downtown in the late morning for the rally at the Bell Tower, followed by the march.

More than one dozen special guests spoke during the rally, including Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, who was emotional at the podium.

More than a dozen lawmakers who support pro-life legislation were recognized, as people clapped, cheered, and shouted, “Thank you!”

“I hadn’t heard that kind of enthusiasm before from politicians on pro-life issues,” said Delores O’Dwyer, a parishioner of Christ the King, Abingdon.

“My favorite part of the day was hearing politicians stand up for life no matter how they are going to be treated for doing it,” said Smith, also from Christ the King.

Father Tom Lawrence, administrator of St. Anne, Bristol; St. Patrick, Dungannon; and St. Bernard, Gate City, and Sarah French, St. Anne’s director of faith formation, led a group of 17 people from St. Anne and Christ the King. The group included six children, as young as eight years old, who left at 5:30 a.m. to get to Richmond in time for the rally.

“It is so important for us to come because we not only represent Bristol, Virginia – but Bristol, Tennessee – and the surrounding region that is affected by the abortion business in our town,” said Angie Bush, who leads the 40 Days for Life campaign in Bristol. The town made headlines following the ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade in 2022 because it is in both Virginia and Tennessee – which have differing abortion laws.

“We want to work for the closure of this business, not just for the women and children in our state, but for the women and children in the seven-state region that travel there,” Bush added.

Another special speaker at the rally was Andrea Pearson, from the “Silent No More Awareness Campaign.” Pearson spoke openly about the physical, spiritual, and emotional pain she suffered after having several abortions.

“Abortion changes you and you will never be the same,” Pearson said. “But there is hope and there is healing after abortion.”

Pearson now travels to raise awareness and let women know about life-affirming resources that are available. “I was given no other options. … Now I work to let women know that they deserve better than abortion,” Pearson said.

Bishop Knestout led the closing prayer at the rally, saying “Father, we ask you for grace today, for all those entrusted with the responsibility of leadership in our Commonwealth, that they have the courage to turn away from the darkness of the culture of death, and turn toward the light of the Gospel of life.”

“Ready to march!” Bishop Knestout said, joining the throngs of people in the streets, many pushing babies in strollers. The bishop kept a good pace, talking with fellow marchers along the route.

“My favorite part of Virginia Pro-Life Day was watching my students walk arm-in-arm,” said Heintzelman. “It was a peaceful expression of hope.”

Father Rossi said they ended the day by letting the kids from St. Joseph play on the grassy hill of the capitol. “They were having fun rolling down the hill!” the pastor said.


See more pictures from Virginia Pro-Life Day.


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