Listen to this story:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Celebrating a Mass for the first National Prayer Vigil for Life in a post-Roe v. Wade nation, a senior U.S. prelate offered a message of gratitude for the efforts of pro-life advocates over the years but also a reminder of the tall task ahead.

“Today we have so much to celebrate. For the first time in the 49-year-history of the March for Life, we can say that Roe vs. Wade, a blight on our nation, our system of justice, and our culture, is no more,” Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, Virginia, said in his homily, drawing applause.

“This is a moment for joy, and for gratitude; a moment to recall the countless souls who have dedicated themselves to political and social action, to prayer, and to service in the name of this cause.”

“But even as we celebrate, we must remember: this is the beginning, not the end,” he continued. “A new important phase of work in the pro-life movement begins now.”

The annual Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was attended by thousands from all over the country, from infants to the elderly. Pews were packed end to end, and chairs and TV screens were set up in each of the basilica’s side chapels. By 5:00 p.m., when the Mass began, the aisles were filled with people standing.

Many of the people in attendance are in Washington for today’s March for Life. This year marks the 50th annual national march, and the first since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this past summer. The ruling sent abortion law back to the states, and in the months since states have both restricted and enhanced abortion access.

There was a significant number of clergy on hand, including Cardinals Seán O’Malley of Boston and Wilton Gregory of Washington. Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, the USCCB president and vice president, respectively, were also in attendance, as was Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.

In all there were the two cardinals, 5 archbishops, 10 bishops and 105 registered priests at the Mass.

In his homily, Burbidge cited two necessary focuses moving forward: Changing laws, and changing hearts.

Part of changing hearts, he said, is communicating pro-life views “with love” and engaging in “respectful discussion” with those who disagree – “efforts to persuade rather than attack.” Burbidge emphasized, however, that doesn’t negate the importance of holding people, especially public officials, accountable.

“Those in public office who endorse policies that protect or grow the evil of abortion must know that they are accountable, yes, to the public they serve, but most importantly to Almighty God, the source of all life,” Burbidge said. “The child in the womb is first and foremost his child.”

Burbidge also noted that to change hearts the pro-life movement must find “new and compelling” ways to communicate their stance. That includes teaching the gospel, engaging with experts who understand the federal and state landscape to coordinate efforts and strategies, and relying on resources like philosophy, the social sciences, technology and psychology.

On changing laws, the bishop highlighted at the national level advocating for an end to policies like those that promote abortion funding, and facilitate alternative means of abortion at home. In the absence of Roe, there also needs to be a focus on advocating for anti-abortion policies at the local level, he said.

Towards the end of the homily Burbidge mentioned the late Pope Benedict XVI, and the love and faith he maintained no matter how bleak the circumstances he witnessed throughout his life.

“In the empty space of suffering, he saw Jesus, and loved him,” Burbidge said. “Friends, may we ask our Lord to give us hearts like that – hearts overflowing with love for him and one another. Nothing less will heal our suffering world.”

Towards the beginning of the Mass, Pierre shared a letter from Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State. The letter  contained a message from Pope Francis, who assured his spiritual closeness to all those participating in the March for Life.

“He is deeply grateful for the faithful witness shown publicly over the years by all who promote and defend the right to life of the most innocent and vulnerable members of our human family,” Pierre said. “Indeed the building of a truly just society rests upon respect for the sacred dignity of every person and the welcome given to each one as brother or sister.”

Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg