COVID surge changes plans for diocese’s high school March for Life pilgrims

Students from Peoria Notre Dame High School are shown at the 2020 National March for Life in Washington, D.C. The COVID-19 surge led Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, to cancel diocesan high school participation in this year's march Jan. 21, but the pilgrims are now invited to a Mass and program in Peoria on the same day. (Provided photo)

There will be no Catholic high school groups from the Diocese of Peoria traveling to the National March for Life in Washington, D.C., this year.

Citing the dramatic increase in the number of transmissions and positive cases of COVID-19, Bishop Daniel R. Jenky, CSC, on Jan. 7 canceled diocesan high school participation in the annual march.

Five days later, however, the diocese provided a local alternative to gather, pray, and witness to the sacredness of human life. The high school pilgrims are now invited to St. Mary’s Cathedral on Jan. 21, the national march date, to take part in the diocesan Mass for the Legal Protection for the Unborn. Coadjutor Bishop Louis Tylka will be celebrant of the 10 a.m. Mass, and the high school students can afterward to view the pre-march rally from Washington, D.C., and take part in other activities at the Spalding Pastoral Center. (See related story.)

SURGE CAME “AT THE WORST TIME”

The omicron variant-fueled COVID surge left diocesan and school officials no choice regarding traveling to Washington, D.C.

“The decision was made in consideration of the medical treatment, accommodations, and transportation that may be required should any of our students and/or adults be exposed to or testing positive for COVID-19 and its variants,” said Dr. Sharon Weiss, diocesan superintendent of Catholic schools, in a letter to high school chaplains and principals.

While some of the high schools had already decided not to send pilgrims again this year — the 2021 march was virtual-only because of the pandemic — others were holding out hope they could give their students the experience of witnessing to the sacredness of human life and praying with pro-life proponents from around the country.

Prior to the pandemic, hundreds of Catholic school and Newman Center students from around the diocese traveled to the nation’s capital by road, rail, and air for the march and related activities, including Masses and youth rallies. Peoria Notre Dame, for example, had 68 students and 26 chaperones signed up for this year’s national march.

“We worked hard to make this trip happen, but in the end the surge came at the worst time for us,” said Father Andru O’Brien, chaplain of The High School of Saint Thomas More in Champaign, in a letter sent to students who had signed up for the trip.

Father O’Brien said the school made its decision to cancel the trip an hour before receiving the diocese-wide decision from Bishop Jenky.

“The biggest hang-up has been this scenario,” he wrote in a separate letter to chaperones and parents. “Everyone comes with a negative test, but severe symptoms present in a student once we arrive in DC. To quarantine a student across the country with a minimum of two chaperones taking care of them presents many difficulties.

“There was not a logical solution to make this trip tenable,” he wrote.

DISAPPOINTMENT, RESOLVE

One of the most popular march-affiliated rallies — the Life is Very Good youth event at the Eagle Bank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia — had already been canceled by the Diocese of Arlington.

Father O’Brien shared the disappointment being felt by students, telling them how much he looked forward to spending time with youth who are “actively trying to make a difference in the world, but more importantly striving to live out their faith.”

“The students are very disappointed, but hopeful that we can at least do something,” said Lauren Booth, assistant principal at Central Catholic High School in Bloomington, prior to the announcement of the Mass and activities in Peoria.

Central Catholic also regularly sent dozens of students to March for Life Chicago, held this year on Jan. 8, but decided against it this year because of the COVID surge. Likewise, a planned diocese-sponsored bus pilgrimage to the Chicago event was canceled.

SPALDING PASTORAL CENTER | 419 NE MADISON AVENUE | PEORIA, IL 61603 | PHONE (309) 671-1550 | FAX (309) 671-1595
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