Making a Pilgrimage for Life amid a pandemic



Youth ministers work hard to help all our “kids” get to Heaven, but we hope that meeting with Jesus happens well in the future. Two weeks ago, an article ran in The Message that highlighted planning for the March for Life in January. As the benefits and risks are weighed of our annual trek to Washington, D.C., there are certain matters that column overlooked that seem prudent to explore.

Each year, the diocese fills anywhere from four to seven buses for its Pilgrimage for Life. Moving a small army across the country while keeping everyone spiritually edified, safe, fed, entertained and rested (mostly) is a challenging feat; planning begins for the next year before the buses return to the diocese. At this time, hotel and bus contracts have been signed, and we are optimistically preparing for a January 2021 PFL. With that said, the health and well-being of the pilgrims cannot be taken lightly. Consider:

  • It is not possible to social distance on a bus. Each vehicle has 14 rows of four seats, and the cabin is filled with recirculated air. As most masks cannot filter out the virus, one person would easily shed millions of cells into the shared air of others. Additionally, safety features like overhead handrails are touched by everyone navigating the aisle. The risk of transmission is very high, and even if social distancing were possible, amortizing the cost for the bus over 25-50% of the full number of pilgrims would prove prohibitive for many.
  • The maximum number of socially-distanced pilgrims per hotel room would be two, and even this may not be safe as they would be sharing a common air space — it would be difficult at best to sleep wearing a mask and impossible to shower, etc. Again, add in all the common touch-points and increased cost, and the challenges begin to mount.
  • If you’ve never been to the March for Life, then it is hard to imagine what a group of half-a-billion people looks like, but “fake news” reports aside, the March typically draws between 300,00 and 500,000 people from all over the country. Both the staging area and rally before the March and the event itself find pilgrims walking shoulder-to-shoulder with people from across the county. Being outdoors, (and if folks wear masks), this may be less risky than the buses and hotel, but there is a risk nonetheless.
  • The great people of St. Elisabeth Ann Seton Parish welcome us each year, and volunteers fill all spots within minutes of sign-up. According to the SEAS parish manager, the average age of volunteers is approximately 55; and when the number of youth group members who serve is removed, this skews the average age of the group more into the lower 60s. No one would want to learn that our time with our SEAS family resulted in serious illness or death for one of the hosts, so this adds a further consideration.
  • Adult leaders are frequently those with the time and ability to attend, and this means several are retired. I keep thinking of my friend, Albert, who has been a faithful chaperone for years. He is a great example and mentor for our youth, but I would fear for his health, as well as those younger who deal with chronic health issues. Although the majority of pilgrims are teenagers, approximately 20% are chaperons for whom COVID-19 could prove deadly.

The PFL is one of the best things the Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry does, and we remain hopeful that circumstances will allow for the 11th annual trek to occur this January. Many unknowns exist right now, for example, when a vaccine will be available, how the virus might mutate or what treatments may develop that improve morbidity and mortality. It would be cavalier and reckless to simply say, “The March is important, so we are going — no matter what.”

Please join us in prayer as we weigh these matters. Updates will be published in The Message, and a final decision is expected by early November. After all, we want our young people to get to Heaven, but we hope it won’t happen this year as a result of the PFL.