Supreme Chaplain Archbishop William E. Lori, Helen Alvaré, Fr. Joseph Koterski, S.J., Mother Mary Agnes Donovan, S.V., and then-Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of Baltimore participate in a conference panel in 2011.
Forty years ago, an estimated 20,000 pro-life supporters gathered together for what became the first annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. Organized in response to the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, the march was begun to ensure that the anniversary of the infamous decision did not pass without notice and to allow Americans the opportunity to petition Congress for redress.
Decades later, the march has become the premier annual gathering of the pro-life movement. And as tens of thousands of marchers have turned into throngs of hundreds of thousands, the march has fostered hundreds of other events – walks, rallies, Masses, and other marches all designed to show support for the cause and to pray for change.
One march-inspired event has a particular tie to the College Knights at Georgetown University.
Celebrating its fifteenth year, the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life has provided an opportunity for pro-life college students to learn and network with each other, encouraging their activism and strengthening the future of the culture of life movement.
In the fall of 1999, the March for Life was already a huge draw for pro-life supporters across the country, but students at Georgetown saw an opportunity to do something more. While the march was an outstanding demonstration of pro-life sentiment and unity, the students wanted to educate and form the next generation of leaders intellectually, too.
"Participants (in the conference) will come away with a greater respect for the dignity of every human life, from natural conception to natural death," said Chris, Cannataro, grand knight of Georgetown University Council 6375. He added, "They will also be inspired to evangelize our culture, invigorating the pro-life movement with a renewed energy and spirit."
The Georgetown Knights of Columbus were an integral part of the conference from the very start. In addition to coming up with the idea for the conference, Georgetown Knights partnered with University Faculty for Life and G.U. Right to Life to plan, organize, and conduct the first conference.
The organizers decided on a format that would allow for keynote speakers and breakout sessions, and they put together an impressive slate of guests which included Helen Alvaré, then representing the U.S. Bishop’s Pro-Life Secretariat, and Congressman Henry Hyde, namesake of the famous Hyde Amendment which prevented certain federal funds from paying for abortions.
"I think we would all agree that this conference is the hallmark event of our council," Cannataro said. "I certainly beam with pride to know that we help to bring the largest student-run pro-life conference to our Hilltop each year, connecting us here at Georgetown to a national movement that has fought for life for the last forty years. It connects us to Knights at Georgetown who have come before us, working to establish and perpetuate this conference, and to Cardinal O’Connor himself, who is certainly one of the strongest beacons of the ‘culture of life’ to have attended Georgetown."
A few months after the conclusion of the first conference pro-life advocate and spokesman Cardinal John O’Connor passed away.
Supreme Knight Carl Anderson addresses the conference in 2007.
As the leading pro-life voice in America and an alumnus of Georgetown, the organizers recognized that Cardinal O’Connor was the perfect namesake for the upstart conference. So from 2001 forward, the conference was renamed the Cardinal O’Connor Conference on Life, to honor him both by memorializing his name, but perhaps more importantly to ensure that his work is carried forward by young people inspired by his courageous example.
In the 14 years since that first conference drew more than 400 students from across the country, the Cardinal O’Connor Conference has become a staple of March for Life week. And throughout those years, Knights of Columbus have continued to play a major role.
"Our council volunteers to help in the operation of both the Conference and the Mass for Life, serving in many hospitality capacities such as ushering," Cannataro said. "We also assist in the setup and cleanup for the activities. In addition, the council makes an effort to share this hallmark event with councils around the District and the country, so that more Knights have the opportunity to experience this Georgetown treasure."
The council has also been an integral part of the conference’s development over the years, inviting speakers, organizing breakouts, and shaping its overall course. Along with Hyde and Alvaré, the conference has welcomed many distinguished guests, including: Archbishop Charles Chaput, Dr. Alveda King, then-Archbishop Raymond Burke, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson, and then-Senator Rick Santorum.
"Robert P. George, Princeton Professor, is the keynote speaker for this year’s conference," said Louis Cona, deputy grand knight for Council 6375. "Thomas Farr, Hadley Arkes, David Novak, and Stephen Fields SJ will also be featured speakers. Each of these individuals has been a leader in the pro-life movement, eloquently and intelligently defending the rights of the unborn. Robert P. George brings to the discussion a unique set of experiences, given his appointments to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the President’s Council on Bioethics, and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. His public service is coupled with an impressive academic career, as he is the author of many books and the director of the James Madison Program at Princeton University."
In offering this conference, the members of Council 6375 hope to ultimately continue to grow support for the culture of life by fostering new ideas and enthusiasm among the attendees.
"The conference has many benefits for our council, our Order, university, and the larger pro-life community," Cona said. "First, it provides a forum for serious intellectual discourse about pro-life issues, giving its participants an intellectual 'tool-kit' with which to publicly defend human life at all stages of its existence. Second, it sparks the pro-life movement to change our culture into one that respects the dignity of everyone. Participants will leave this conference with renewed vigor and zest."
For more information or to register to attend this year’s conference, visit www.cardinaloconnorconference.com