The young Franciscan friar standing on the subway platform at Union Square is surrounded by six or seven men in their twenties. Some are bearded, as is the friar (are beards coming back into fashion?). We are heading to the same destination: Old Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in lower Manhattan. The occasion is the first Saturday of the month, the regular date for a Witness for Life, a pro-life Mass and rosary procession to a nearby Planned Parenthood facility.
This is a very special first Saturday. The Dobbs decision overturning Roe was handed down only a week earlier. The month before, after the Dobbs majority opinion had been leaked, left-wing activists in New York organized a pro-abortion crowd to impede the procession. Today, rumor suggests that the crowd will be bigger—and more determined to prevent any witnesses for life from making it two blocks north to Planned Parenthood.
As the Mass begins, you can hear the crowd on Mulberry Street. They’re in front of the church, yelling and chanting, although the heavy wooden church doors so muffle the sound that you can’t tell what they’re saying. The congregation grows with late-comers, who enter from the side door. More than two hundred are in attendance.
The Old Testament reading from the prophet Amos resonates with the promise of fullness of life: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the vintager, him who sows the seed.” The Gospel for the day promises new wine in new wineskins. It is time to rebuild and inhabit our ruined cities.
Fr. Fidelis Moscinski of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal is the pro-life leader who organizes the monthly “Witness for Life” at Old St. Pat’s. He opens his homily by praising the Dobbs decision. He uses words from the Song of the Sea, the victory song of the Israelites after their safe escape from Pharaoh: “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously.” He gestures to the front door, warning the congregation that the witness they're committed to making will be met with bitter (and profane) resistance. “Let us remember to pray for those who assail us,” he urges. Unknowingly they bring blessings, for as our Lord teaches, “Blessed are you when men revile and persecute you, and speak all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.”
A young man hoists high the crucifix. Two others hold aloft an image of the Blessed Virgin. We make our way toward the side entrance. Soon, we are halted. As we pray through the Joyful Mysteries, the procession does not move. Tumult from the street echoes in the passageway. Eventually, the line slowly inches forward. Out into the sunlight I go.
The pro-abortion crowd is chanting “No pasarán.” Half of them wear masks. Some hold signs aloft. One makes a socialist plea, tailored for the occasion: “Workers Unite for Abortion Rights.” Other signs are not fit for quotation in a family magazine. The chants are odd. One group repeats over and over again, in sing-song fashion: “Thank God for abortion.” Angry faces shout insults.
A line of policemen gently but firmly presses forward. The forward edge of the pro-abortion crowd resists, but then gives up a few inches. Over the next hour and a half, this semi-ritualized pattern is repeated countless times. We proceed at a snail's pace, always surrounded by chants, jeers, and screams of outrage.
Going slowly is, I suppose, fitting after Dobbs. It took nearly fifty years to overturn Roe. In all likelihood it will take a long time to overcome the mania for abortion that still grips New York’s politicians. God seems to want us to be a slow crowd, much like the Israelites in the desert.
I make my way to the front of the procession, where the police apply constant pressure on the agents of “No pasarán.” It’s obvious that the crowd is filled with protest veterans. They engage in sidewalk litigation with police: “I have a right to be on this sidewalk!” Smartphones are perpetually aloft to record any untoward police actions. It’s evident that for many the police are the true adversaries, not those of us praying the rosary. The choreography of the confrontation before me is well known to police and protestors alike.
The day is hot and humid. Fortunately, we’re inching our way up the sidewalk on the east side of the street, in the morning shade. The pro-abortion protestors appear determined and genuinely enraged, but they’re not imposing. Most are female. Press photographers show no signs of concern as they jostle for good shots. The scene lacks any hint of menace. We’ve come a long way since the days of Bobby Seale.
The pro-abortion chants and slogans have a hackneyed, recycled quality. When the procession finally arrives at Planned Parenthood, the protestors respond to the recitation of the rosary by singing puerile pop songs from their youth: “All Star” by Smash Mouth, “I Want It That Way” by the Backstreet Boys. Big media dovetails effortlessly with pro-abortion activism. Of course, we already knew that.
The procession back to the church moves more quickly. The pro-abortion crowd is satisfied to hector as we go along. The Benediction brings this month’s Witness for Life to an end.
The pro-abortion crowd is likely to grow for August’s Witness for Life. The activists know that Dobbs put an end to progressive ownership of our rule of law. American society is now open for a debate about the morality of abortion, and I dare say many other things. That’s a debate the left wishes to forestall, and they will do so by keeping our voices out of the public square. “No pasarán” is cancel culture operating in our streets.
If the spirit moves you, consider joining the next Witness for Life on Saturday, August 6. It starts with an 8 a.m. Mass. We’re a slow crowd, but in due time we will make our way to a culture of life.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.
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Photo by Elvert Barnes via Creative Commons. Image cropped.