Carrying multicolored balloons, crucifixes or children, the estimated 30,000 people walked through the historic center of the city and joined Pope Francis for the midday recitation of the “Regina Coeli” prayer in St. Peter’s Square.
The pope greeted the marchers, who were led by U.S. Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, patron of the Knights and Dames of Malta; Archbishop Luigi Negri of Ferrara-Comacchio, Italy; and Auxiliary Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Astana, Kazakhstan.
Organizers said more than 100 pro-life and pro-family organizations participated, including dozens from 29 countries besides Italy. Although the march is not sponsored by the Catholic Church or a particular Catholic group, hundreds of priests and religious joined the marchers.
The marchers carried signs not only urging an end to legalized abortion, but also urging Italian lawmakers to reject proposed legislation allowing euthanasia and a bill — further along in the legislative process — that would recognize civil unions of unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples.
Before greeting the group, Pope Francis spoke to them and to thousands of other visitors about the feast of the Ascension, which was celebrated May 5 at the Vatican and May 8 in Italy.
“After having seen their Lord ascend to heaven, the disciples returned to the city (Jerusalem) as witnesses who with joy proclaimed to all the new life” that came with the death and resurrection of Jesus, the pope said.
“This is the witness — made not just with words but also through one’s daily life — the witness that every Sunday should go out from our churches in order to enter each week into homes, offices, schools, places where people gather and have fun, hospitals, prisons, homes for the elderly, places crowded with immigrants and the peripheries of our cities,” the pope said.
“This is the witness we must give each week: Christ is with us. Jesus, who ascended to heaven, is with us. Christ is alive!”
“The March for Life is growing,” said Father Shenan Boquet, president of Human Life International (HLI). I’ve been participating now for a number of years. It’s great to see the numbers, and to see especially young people, young families, people getting more involved. It’s an exciting time.”
First held in Rome on Mother’s Day in 2012 (having previously been held in other parts of the country on two other occasions), the annual event was modeled from the U.S. March for Life held each year in Washington D.C. Over the past four years, thousands of people traveled from around the world to take part.
Boquet said the March for Life also offered a valuable witness for the non-participating passersby on the streets of Rome.
“It’s wonderful to watch people on the side,” he said, “which is part of the intention of the March: to kind of interrupt people’s normality, while they’re having their gelato, or their cappuccino, and say: hey, what is all this about?”
“It’s an opportunity to engage without engaging,” he said. “It’s really exciting to see.”
(Ann Schneible of the Catholic News Agency also contributed to this report.)