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The lasting image of this year's March for Life: that Mass on the snowbound turnpike

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 27, 2016

In past years I have remarked on the mysterious temporary blindness that strikes reporters in Washington, DC, in late January, making it impossible for them to notice the March for Life. This year there was no mystery about it. With a blizzard of historic proportions bearing down on the city, sensible reporters were no doubt staying indoors. You can’t blame them for that.

But here’s a bit of inside information that reporters might now know: Even from the warmth and shelter of your home or office building, you can access the internet! So if you’re interested, you can log onto the social media, and see if there are news reports or photos of the March. If you’re interested.

If you’re not interested, you can toss the March for Life story into the miscellany column. For the New York Times that meant an item in a roundup of stories about the winter weather: Hundreds Brave Snow at March for Life in Washington. Hundreds? Well, yes, there were definitely “hundreds” of people marching through the first snowfall. Hundreds of hundreds, in fact, as the photos posted on the internet proved. But the Times headline (which really wasn’t a headline) was not nearly as slapdash as the one that appeared in the Washington Post.

Bear in mind that the editorial offices of the Post are located just a few blocks from the line of march. So an intrepid reporter could have jogged over to see what was happening, and been back at his desk before the chill set in. Here’s the Post headline: As DC shuts down for a blizzard, a small, faithful crowd still joins the March for Life.

A “small crowd” is a wonderfully elastic term. We had a “small crowd” at our house for our New Year’s Eve party, and I suppose you could predict that there will be a “small crowd” at the Super Bowl. Attendance at the March for Life was, I assure you, much closer to the latter size. And this, remember, was despite a blizzard that forced cancellation of hundreds of charter bus trips to DC for the event.

As usual, no one had anything approaching an accurate count of the pro-life marchers. It’s pointless to argue about the numbers, anyway. We go through this exercise every year. The major media are incorrigible; it is impossible to shame them, and thus unrealistic to expect objective coverage.

Ordinarily, the pictures of tens of thousands of people marching through the first flurries of a blizzard should have made this year’s March for Life unusually memorable. But they won’t. Not just because the mass media ignore the opportunity for dramatic photo coverage, but also because the photos of the March were not as memorable as what came soon thereafter: the Mass on the snowbound Pennsylvania Turnpike.

On the internet—which is the only place I saw them—the photos of the March were soon eclipsed by photos of scores of Catholics huddled around a snow altar. Those images, I suspect, will remain in viewers’ minds long after the March itself is forgotten.

Therein lies a lesson: the Mass is our greatest tool for evangelization. The Eucharistic liturgy has a power immeasurably greater than the best arguments, the most effective lobbying: a power to reach and change hearts. We have come to expect that Mass will be celebrated in Catholic churches, and so—human nature being what it is—we tend to take it for granted. But when the holy Sacrifice takes place unexpectedly, at an unusual time, in an unusual venue, it can stun. See the people gathered in the snow, see the men clothed in vestments, and even the most jaded viewer is prompted to ask questions: What are they doing? Why are they doing it? So he is ready to be instructed in what the Church fathers called the “mysteries” of the Eucharist.

Notice that the power of those images from the snowbound turnpike affects everyone, whether or not they understand what Catholics believe, whether or not they recognize the rite. As an instrument of evangelization the Eucharistic liturgy does not need to be explained, so much as it needs to be celebrated properly. There, too, is a lesson, which can be applied to our ordinary parish life. The celebrant need not continually tell the congregation what he is doing, or instruct them on how they should respond. If he celebrates the Mass according to the liturgical directives—if he “says the black and does the red”—the Mass speaks for itself.

In fact, rather than giving weekly instructions to his congregation (the opening announcements about the “theme” of this week’s Mass, or the interspersed comments on how the people should feel at a particular point), a priest would be well advised to pick up a copy of Bishop Peter Elliott’s The Ceremonies of the Modern Roman Rite, and immerse himself in the study of proper liturgical celebration. We’d all do well to spend less time wondering what we think about the liturgy, and more time concentrating on how well we celebrate the Mass.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Aug. 10, 2016 7:04 AM ET USA

    An excellent essay. I don't see how anyone could disagree either with what Lawler says about Islam or about what Robert Reilly has written.

  • Posted by: keelergmom2722 - Jan. 29, 2016 10:45 PM ET USA

    Ahhhhhh! Yes!

  • Posted by: garedawg - Jan. 29, 2016 10:03 AM ET USA

    A picture that has stuck in my mind is one of Fr. Emil Kapaun celebrating Mass on the hood of a jeep during the Korean War.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jan. 27, 2016 11:58 AM ET USA

    I don't know if this will post, but it says everything about the March and about the Mass:

  • Posted by: FredC - Apr. 30, 2014 1:40 PM ET USA

    Ask a Muslim: How do you know that the angel that appeared to Muhammad was not a bad angel, the devil, disguised as a good angel? If he quotes the Quran, he will be quoting that angel, the origin of whom he does not know.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - Apr. 29, 2014 10:06 AM ET USA

    One key aspect distinguishing Islam from Judaism and Christianity is the Genesis account. Man was not, to Muslims, created in the image and likeness of God. In Christianity this fact is even more important than in Judaism, for it points to the Incarnation. In both, however, it establishes a definitive link between God and man. In Islam, we have rather a relationless and unassociated Allah, whose love is incomprehensible not in the sense of being mysterious but rather of having no basis.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Apr. 28, 2014 7:55 PM ET USA

    Reilly is right and his book The Closing of the Muslim Minds is among the very best explanations I've ever read of what makes Islam different from just about every other religion. It quickly exposes a lot of Western talk about Mohammedanism for what it is, dangerous feel-good nonsense. In the last paragraph above, the salient phrase is "few Islamic leaders." The words "rational" and "Islam" are never at ease with one another in the same sentence.

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 28, 2014 6:22 PM ET USA

    Very thoughtful analysis. Allow me to extend your reasoning to the sexual revolution. Christians are now squeezed on both sides: as you clearly demonstrate, on the one side by the Islamists, and on the other by the gays. To paraphrase you: the thought of radical homosexuals provides no real basis for the recognition of human rights apart from the prescriptions of gay civil rights.