May 10. It was a hot Roman Sunday as pilgrims headed for St. Peter’s Square for the traditional Papal appearance for the Regina Coeli after which the Pontiff greets the crowds and bestows his apostolic blessing. Clusters of tourists and tour groups as well as couples ambled along the Via della Conciliazione in the direction of the Papal venue. Immigrant vendors from Africa and Southern Asia were everywhere, aggressively attempting to sell the latest must-have gadget: “selfie sticks.” (For this they emigrated?)
Inside the square, the number of people carrying flags, banners, and cameras surged as the noon hour approached. Fortunately, a shady spot could be found near the left colonnade, directly across from the traditional Papal windows. It was 11:30 am. St. Peter’s was resplendent under a cloudless sky with brilliant sunlight highlighting the cream-colored stone of the recently cleaned façade and colonnade. Fountains on the left and right side of the Square spurted and cascaded white water in lacey patterns.
Pigeons wandered over whatever ground space remained, aiming for a stray crumb or two from panini-clutching tourists who were unable to restrain their hunger even in a sacred space. Curiosity and religiosity, the profane and the sacred seemed to blend. A few sea gulls, straying from their nearby Tiber habitat, soared overhead, reminding some of the Holy Spirit. One settled atop the iron cross capping the towering Egyptian obelisk in the center of the Square and remained there for the duration of the Papal presence.
This year May 10 was an important date on the Roman calendar: It was the occasion of the fifth annual Rome March for Life. The organizers and volunteers of the “Marcia Nazionale per la Vita” were strategically placed on the Via della Conciliazione in front of St. Peter’s Square, the starting point for the afternoon event, selling pink balloons and red tee-shirts with the March logo. By midday the crowds had filled the Square; Pope Francis duly appeared at the stroke of noon.
After the customary prayers and mini-homily the Pontiff greeted and called by name specific pilgrim groups present in the Piazza. They were from Croatia, Puerto Rico, and Madrid, and from a half-dozen small Italian towns duly mentioned by the Pope to the elation of their representatives. Also cited were larger groups representing the Italian National Forest Brigade, women from the cancer organization Komen Italy, and participants of the Italian Episcopal Conference, gathered in Rome to deal with controversial changes to the Italian school curriculum.
Finally, there was a reference to the pro-lifers who were present in much larger numbers. The Holy Father addressed them as follows: “To those who have participated in the initiative for life this morning in Rome: It is important to collaborate together to defend and promote life.” Then he linked his remarks to Mother’s Day—being celebrated in many countries that day—asking for applause for mothers as spectators obliged. Besides the disappointing paucity and flaccidity of his words, Pope Francis had got the timing wrong: The “initiative for life” had not yet taken place.
The March began at 2 pm. At that time the crowds rallied and heard a few resounding words from the organizers as well as testimonies by abortion survivors, women conceived in rape but thankful for their mothers’ choice of life, and other women who remained remorseful for having aborted a child even many years ago.
As the March got under way, a sea of humanity followed behind a huge banner and a large cross of a lacerated and crucified Christ. There were many flags and catchy pro-life slogans mounted on placards. “Do not kill our future,” read one. “Abortion is violence” another. Many rhymed convincingly and forcefully in Italian: “Aborto e eutanesia. Spaziamoli via!” (Let’s sweep away abortion and euthanasia!) “Ogni aborto è un bambino morto.” (Every abortion is a dead child.) One slogan could be applied to the United Nations: “L’aborto non è un diritto, è un delitto!” (Abortion is not a right, it is a crime!) Perhaps the most striking was a placard depicting the folded arms of a burly man with a headline that read: “A real man understands sacrifice. Women deserve much more.” Many slogans urged the abrogation of Law 194, which made abortion legal in Italy.
A large youthful band provided stimulating music to accompany the marchers, who came from all across Italy and several foreign countries including the United States. There were families with children; laity, clergy and religious; young and old. They marched for over two hours under a hot sun. From Via della Conciliazione across the Tiber and down the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of Rome’s longest and busiest streets. Then it was on to the Torre Argentina neighborhood and Piazza Venezia, skirting the dazzlingly white Victor Emanuel Monument with the tomb of the unknown soldier, past the Theater of Marcellus, and onward across the triumphal Via dei Fori Imperiali not far from the Colosseum, finally ending up in Piazza Santa Maria in Cosmedin (best known for the famous “Mouth of Truth”).
More speeches followed at the closure with special references of gratitude to participants from foreign pro-life organizations. I marched along with many other foreign groups, including a large Polish contingent whose male members wore suits and ties despite 29 degree Celsius readings.
The spokesperson for the March, Virginia Coda Nunziante, a tall thin elegant noblewoman, in her closing remarks said: “Abortion, euthanasia and every attack on human life want to strike the very face of God through the innocent; disfigure creation; and destroy the human being.”
In the aftermath, while pro-life bloggers posted lots of pictures of the event, newspapers gave it little attention. The venerable Corriere della Sera, Italy’s newspaper of record, did cover the march—on page 27 of its Rome supplement. The Vatican’s own newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, ran a story in its May 11-12 edition, on page 5 of an 8-page issue, but under the headline “An applause for mothers.” A photograph accompanying it showed a dense crowd with the banner “Marcia Nazionale per la Vita.” Such scant coverage, for a march estimated at 40,000—far larger than the frequent Italian labor protests that always seem to make the front pages—was disappointing indeed.
Nonetheless, the positive message for life emanating from the thousands of witnesses on May 10th assures that the next Rome march will be even larger and more forceful. Life always triumphs over death.
*Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.