After a contentious week at Georgetown University that included a speech by Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, and “Life Week” activities to counter her appearance, about 30 Georgetown students, faculty and staff gathered April 21 at the university’s front gate to walk together to Mass and to pray about the situation.
“Mass is a way for the community to come together and ask the Holy Spirit to work through us,” said Sean Viscount, a 21-year-old Georgetown senior majoring in finance and marketing and minoring in theology.
The students set out on a 10-block walk past some of Georgetown’s nearly two-century-old brick row houses to Epiphany Catholic Church, where Cardinal Donald Wuerl would celebrate a University “Mass for Life” that drew about 150 people from campuses across the Washington area.
For the Georgetown students, that walk to and from the Mass and their participation in the liturgy marked the culmination of a challenging week on campus, and divisive weeks beforehand.
The controversy over a student group’s speaking invitation to Richards – head of the nation’s leading abortion provider – drew both criticism and support for the nation’s oldest Catholic university, as individuals and groups questioned or defended the university’s commitment to its Catholic identity and academic freedom.
That clash of ideas was very much on the students’ minds as they walked to Mass.
“We need to pray for a healthy dialogue,” said Viscount, who is from Long Island, New York. He believes both the pro-life and pro-choice sides sincerely desire to help people.
Like many of the Georgetown students, he spoke about what the university’s Catholic identity meant to him. Viscount, who after graduation will be working as a research analyst for the Bank of America, directs the student choir at the 9:30 p.m. Sunday Mass at the university’s historic Dahlgren Chapel.
“It’s my favorite part of the week,” he said, adding that the choir members “have become my best friends.”
That point was echoed by Marco Garcia, a 19-year-old freshman from El Paso, Texas, who said, “There is a living Catholic community on campus.”
A member of the Knights of Columbus at the campus, he joins Georgetown students on some Saturday mornings in bringing breakfast to homeless people sleeping on the city’s sidewalks and grates.
Garcia said he was disappointed in Georgetown’s Lecture Fund’s invitation to Richards, and he was among a group of pro-life students who attended her talk. Rather than being the dialogue that it had been advertised as and that he had hoped it would be, Garcia said the speech “was more a rally… She framed it as a war they’re winning.”
In her talk, Richards expressed hope that the “Hoyas for Choice” group on campus would someday be an officially recognized student organization. The Planned Parenthood president – whose organization provided 327,653 abortions in the United States in fiscal year 2014 – linked the battle for “reproductive rights” to the nation’s civil rights movement.
She commended students there for “10,000 condoms distributed last semester,” and also noted, “And now students can get birth control through Georgetown insurance plans. Welcome to the 21stcentury!”
Anne Ewing, a 21-year-old Georgetown senior majoring in the biology of global health, said on her walk to the cardinal’s Mass that she was going “to pray that the sanctity of life from conception to natural death will be protected.”
She too was among pro-life students at Richards’ talk, and she said hearing the abortion issue discussed in such a casual way, and seeing 400 fellow Georgetown students cheering and giving Richards a standing ovation “was really upsetting for me. But I think it was really important for me to see the other side.”
Ewing, noting that Georgetown includes students from many different faiths and viewpoints, said, “I hope every student understands it really is important to hear everyone out and respect their beliefs. You’re never going to get anywhere unless you listen. You have to start there.”
After the week’s events, she felt that her faith and her pro-life views had been strengthened.
For her, one of the most inspiring moments of the week came the night before Richards’ talk, when the university hosted a panel discussion on “Life-affirming Alternatives to Planned Parenthood,” and a panelist, Dr. Marguerite Duane, spoke about her experiences as a family physician and her efforts to encourage women facing crisis pregnancies to choose life.
Duane served as a medical director for the Spanish Catholic Center in the Archdiocese of Washington, and is now an adjunct associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Medicine.
Ewing – a pre-med student who hopes to become an OB-GYN –said it was inspiring for her to hear a pro-life physician talk about loving and serving her patients no matter what, and being there for them.
“It gave me a lot of hope,” she said.
After the speaking invitation to Richards had been announced, Georgetown University said the students’ action did not reflect an endorsement by the university. Georgetown said it remained committed to “the free exchange of ideas” and “remains firmly committed to the sanctity and human dignity of every life at every stage.”
A week before Richards’ speech, Georgetown hosted a panel discussion on “Resisting the Throwaway Culture: Protecting Human Life and Dignity.” Georgetown President John DeGioia, in welcoming people to that discussion, did not mention Richards or the abortion issue.
He said universities must be animated by values of “academic freedom and freedom of speech and expression” and have “an openness to pursue the truth wherever it may lead us.” DeGioia added, “We seek to be ‘authentically’ a university and ‘authentically’ Catholic.”
At the Mass for Life, Wuerl did not directly mention the Richards controversy, but he did address issues that she raised in her talk.
“The word ‘choice’ is a smokescreen behind which those killing unborn children take refuge. Every chance you get, blow that smoke away, so everyone knows what it is we’re talking about,” he said.
Wuerl encouraged the students to recognize that every human life is a gift from God, and to do all they can to respect life. He pointed to the example of Pope Francis in his visit to Washington this past fall.
“The Holy Father radiated love whether he was greeting a head of state or a homeless person,” the cardinal said. “His gestures, his words, his actions in every encounter proclaimed the truth that every life is worth living. Every life has value.”
After the Mass, Ewing, the pre-med student, said, “The thing that stuck out to me most was that life is a gift,” and the importance of “remembering that in your own life every day, it’s a gift you should cherish.”
Her friend and classmate Viscount, who is about to embark on a career in banking, said his takeaway from the Mass was, “How we’re all created for a purpose, and believing that not only for yourself, but for every other person.”
Julie Reiter, a junior from Annapolis, Maryland, studying nursing at Georgetown, was among a group of pro-life students who attended Cecile Richards’ lecture and then ended the contentious week by walking to and praying at the Mass for Life.
Afterward, she expressed hope that the week’s events would strengthen the resolve of Georgetown students – and the university itself – to be more active in standing up for life.
“I always believe in ending on a positive note,” said Reiter, who hopes to be a pediatric nurse. “There’s nothing more positive than Mass and the celebration of the Eucharist. In a muddled week of dispute, it’s nice to come home and hear the truth.”
On the walk back to Georgetown from the Mass, Jesuit Father Gregory Schenden – a chaplain at the university’s Office of Campus Ministry – said he was inspired by those students’ witness of faith, going to a Mass for life during one of the busiest weeks in their academic year.
He noted that many of those students had just completed an eight-week pilot program, designed to help them incorporate the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius in their everyday lives.
“The way God works through these young people, I’m moved by it every day,” he said. “There’s a hunger for a deepening of their faith life, a deepening of their relationship to Christ.”
That, he said, was a walk they would take together, as they had that evening after a challenging week on campus.
“They recognize they’re not going alone. They walk with each other in the midst of joys, as well as in the midst of challenges and struggles,” the Jesuit priest said. “That’s our faith.”