This piece originally appeared in the July 6, 1992, issue of The New Republic.
When John Cardinal O’Connor, long the nemesis of pro-choice Catholics like me, announced his plans to lead a prayer vigil at a Manhattan abortion clinic last week, I knew I had to go. Always curious about the people who form the shock troops of the pro-life movement, I decided to observe them firsthand by joining the ranks of the rosary-praying procession to the Eastern Women’s Center.
Outside St. Agnes’s Church, contained by a phalanx of cops and blue barriers, stood the pro-choice brigade, a mix of women’s and gay rights groups. Among the organizers was Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice, a group that is often toe-to-toe with the Church in canonical and theological battles. Inside, it was standing room only. Having taken my place at the rear of the church, I missed the cardinal’s entrance, unable to see above the sea of heads, some demurely covered with chapel veils or straw hats.
Large men in navy blue business suits provided security within the church, the suits occasionally decorated with a lapel pin depicting a stylized griffin or something. Others were red armbands; they were the “prayer marshals” who would lead us in the rosary as we marched to the clinic.
In the cardinal’s homily, he introduced the new order of nuns he founded last year, Sisters for Life. The six sisters were dressed in traditional habits (sans wimple) of starched, taupe-colored cotton. The cardinal spoke with pride of how the order now had six novices and as many postulants. “They are not exceptional,” he said, “but they are mine.” He then turned solemn: “We must not let violence beget violence.” He told of the “mad bomber” of abortion clinics whom he had helped apprehend some years ago when he appealed to the culprit to turn himself in. “I had to think of him this morning,” he said, “as I was informed that last night there was a call to the police that if I were with you today, the caller said he would shoot me.” He paused drastically so the collective gasp of the crowd could be heard. “Again, it’s only a reminder,” he said, “that violence begets violence…”
The woman standing in front of me aimed her Polaroid at the altar and shot. She wore the blue wool beret of the devotees of Our Lady of the Roses, a shrine to the Virgin in Flushing, Queens, where Veronica Lueken claims that the Mother of God regularly appears to her. Veronica, a Bayside housewife, passes Our Lady’s messages on to the world through her newsletter, “Roses,” and a toll-free number: 1-800-345-MARY.
The crowd outside was getting quite loud, banging drums and chanting, “Not the church, not the state, women will decide our fate.” The temperature rose inside. O’Connor reminded us that, once outside, “We will make no response whatsoever to anyone who may wish to speak with us…No matter what words might spring to our lips and to our minds,” he cautioned, “we will simply continue to pray.” He went on to inform us that today was “an auspicious day”—the Feast of St. Anthony of Padua, “the patron saint of childless women Today,” he said, “we will pray to St. Anthony."
He closed with the story of his rosary beads. They were given to him by “the famous Mother Teresa of Calcutta” in Rome on the occasion of the cardnial’s elevation to the bishopric.
I, too, stood clutching a rosary. It was made by my grandfather, now dead, a fierce and charming Irishman who vehemently opposed abortion. He knew where I stood on the issue and still accepted me, but had I been a stranger, it might have been another story. Would he be appalled at the use of his beads in my subterfuge? Or pleased that I still remembered how to use them?
As a child, I loved the rosary. The repetition of the gentle prayers would lull me into a trance that sent my mind wandering above the clouds. But today my grandfather’s pretty amethyst-glass beads were to be used as a political weapon, as were all the beads in this room, even the chintzy little plastic sets you could buy if you’d come haplessly unprepared.
Most of the congregants were over 45, though there were younger people in the church. There seemed to be as many women as men, though the men were clearly the leaders, and the women tended to be beyond child-bearing age.
During the Rite of Peace, I exchanged an awkward handshake with a handsome Filipino man in his 20s. near the front of the church I saw several teenage boys with stylish haircuts who wore brightly colored T-shirts that read: “Choose Life.” At the communion rail stood a man in a blue suit, with a handlebar mustache with elaborately waxed ends. Next to me, at the rear of the church, stood an older man with the ubiquitous navy suit. In his lapel was the griffin pin. “Excuse me, sir,” I asked. What does your pin mean?” He looked straight ahead. “American TFP,” he grunted. “Oh,” I said. Tradition, Family and Property is a fringe organization, founded in 1960 in opposition to Brazil’s land reform efforts. Its founder, a rabid right-winger, was a defender of the Inquisition.
As the noise outside grew even louder, the cardinal began the rosary, and we left the church. The pro-choicers were ready for us, chanting and drumming, but they were held to the side-walks by the blue barricades, and we received a police escort down Madison Avenue. As we neared the clinic, we moved with less ease. The sidewalks were lined with placard-carrying choices. Some carried NARAL and NOW signs; but most telling were the hand-lettered signs.
“I’m a sex expert,” boasted the placard held by a man dressed as the pope. A more respectful participant announced: “Notre Dame graduate for choice.” Others bore the now familiar chants, such as: “Pray, You’ll Need It; Your Cause Has Been Defeated.” I stepped on a stray flier that featured a photo of O’Connor with these words slashed across it: “Wearing a dress doesn’t make you an authority on women.”
They chanted their sayings, and we chanted back our prayers: “Hail Mary, full of grace…” “KEEP YOUR ROSARIES…” “The Lord is with thee…” “OFF MY OVARIES…” “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb…”
I stuck to the center of the column, where I was pressed toward two elderly men. “Look at these protesters,” one said, “a bunch of Jews.”
When we arrived at the clinic, the air was acrid with tension as each side hurled chants and chanted prayers at one another. The praying ones held their rosaries high, as if to ward off vampires. Women in pink tunics emblazoned with the words “Clinic Escort” stood watch on the streetcorners to whisk patients into the facility. Suddenly overwhelmed by the heat and the noise, I broke ranks and went in search of a coffee shop. In my absence, several women were escorted by the pink tunics into the clinics, their faces shielded by articles of clothing, as if they were criminals.
I soon raced back to the church, where the pro-lifers were to reconvene for a benediction by Bishop Thomas Daily of Brooklyn. The church was full of people and the glorious scent of incense. The bishop led the congregation in a chanted benediction—in Latin. I hadn’t heard Latin in church since my early school days. Suddenly I was surrounded by a church of another era. The beauty of the organ music and the Gregorian chant and the Latin, which had united a disparate lot of people not so long ago, made me wish I could still celebrate it, and know nothing more than its spiritual meaning.
A little priest stood at a podium. “There are 200 sandwiches downstairs,” he said, “and 400 cups of coffee.” I bolted for the door, through the crowd kneeling on the stone floor at the back of the church, and out into the light of day.