Jeanne Mancini, President of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund, spoke with Msgr. James P. Shea, President of the University of Mary, on a video call on January 5, 2021, to discuss her work in the pro-life movement.
Monsignor James P. Shea (MShea): Could you start by telling us a bit about yourself and how you first got involved in the pro-life movement?
Jeanne Mancini (JM): It has really been a call from God. We’re all called to be involved in the life movement, but for me there were a number of things that happened along the way. There wasn’t any sort of “lightning bolt experience.” The biggest thing would be that I grew up Catholic, and I had a real conversion of heart when I was in high school. I’ve almost always felt God’s presence since then, and I’ve had a desire to be close to him and to follow His will since then. But as for the mission of working for a culture of life specifically, there were two moments.
One moment was when I was working for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps after college. I was working with young people who had very tragically been the victims of abuse or neglect. They were in a youth crisis shelter before they would go to new adoptive parents, or to a foster home, or to a residential treatment center. Even though I was Catholic, I was grappling with questions of the faith a lot, especially with the Church’s teachings on contraception, seeing profound suffering and thinking, “Maybe it would be better if some of these kids were never born.” I was really struggling through that, and then I had a devout Catholic say to me, “Who are you to judge the quality of anyone’s life?” And that was a bit of a game-changer for me. In that moment, I thought, “Every person has inherent human dignity from the moment of conception, and even if they suffer terribly, that doesn’t make them less dignified. We should never judge the value of someone’s life.” So that was one moment.
Another moment was when I was studying at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute. One day in his class on the biblical nature of the theology of marriage and family, Fr. Francis Martin was talking about some of the things that were going on at the U.N. concerning gender – this was the late ‘90s, and the U.N. was defining something like nine different genders. Fr. Martin was talking about Genesis 1 – “male and female he created them” – and Genesis 2, and it struck me so deeply that reality is not arbitrary and we cannot make up genders: there are two ways of being a person: male and female. I sensed a call and attraction to help show the truth about what it means to be human, the truth about life.
So that’s sort of a long-winded way of saying that my involvement in the pro-life movement has been a response to a call, a desire, an attraction that God has placed upon my heart to help build a culture of life in different ways, especially through public policy.
MShea: And now you’re in your eighth year as head of the March for Life Education and Defense Fund – you’re the successor of Nellie Gray, who founded the March for Life! How did you come to this work, and how in the midst of your call to be involved in the pro-life movement were you attracted to this particular role of leadership?
JM: Well, I know it sounds kind of weird, but I wasn’t initially attracted to the idea of this job! I know that sounds terrible, especially for people who are discerning and thinking about their vocations. And I did and do sense a call from God to this work. But the story is this: I had been on the board for a few months when Nellie passed away, and we thought about a quick succession plan. I was very happy to help with that for a few months and find Nellie’s successor. But through prayer and discernment, it became clear that the March has a wonderful opportunity to grow. Over time it became clear that I would take on a longer-term role with the March for Life and so it just sort of transitioned from a few months to a larger commitment. The Blessed Mother and the leadership of the March had a special role in that, as well.
[Our culture's] most basic intellectual wound is the false notion that reality is arbitrary. And we know that’s not true. Reality reflects God’s design for the human person.
I had said I wasn’t attracted to the job at first, and I think it was because I had this idea that I’m not an event planner, and I would be terrible at that! One of the things that was attractive to me was that I could continue doing pro-life public policy work within the March. But the idea of being able to help shape public policy within this role was very exciting to me.
MShea: And you’ve done a great job! I’ve been coming to the March for many, many years, since I was a young kid, and then all through college when I was at the Catholic University of America for minor seminary, and then of course we’ve been bringing our students from the University of Mary for many years, as well. We’ve really seen – and I’ve seen – the March evolve and grow. And your leadership has lent a lot of sparkle and a different level of impact, and it’s been very moving to see this event which is really near to my heart and so important to our country grow and expand in its scope, and its reach, and its vision!
JM: Thank you. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
MShea: In the battle for the sanctity of human life, there are clearly political ramifications. But what would you say are some of the intellectual and spiritual wounds of our culture that need healing in order for life to triumph in a lasting way? And connected with that, what is the role of faithful Catholic education in that healing? Obviously, as a Catholic university, we are interested in those kinds of questions. We know that the pro-life struggle is not simply a political struggle, so what intellectual and spiritual wounds do we need to attend to, and how can that be done by a Catholic university?
JM: I love those questions. Let me try to answer the latter question first, and then I’ll back my way into the former. I think the role of the modern Catholic university is to help students discover what it means to be fully human, in all of life’s different joys and callings, whether that’s in the medical profession, or in social work, or in mathematics or in any other discipline. The role of a great Catholic university in building a culture of life is always to continue to answer the question, “What does it mean to be fully human?”
Then, to go back to the question of our culture’s wounds, perhaps the biggest wound is this false notion that reality is arbitrary. So many people in our culture live with that idea, and we see it come up in different ways: “I don’t feel like a man, so I’m going to become a woman.” Abortion is another way we see this wound come up: “I’m going to say that life in its earliest stages is a ‘blob of tissue’ versus an actual life, that a beating heart isn’t a beating heart. So if I take a life, it doesn’t make a difference. It’s not taking a life but “erasing” a life.” Abortion is a grave act where one life is wounded and another is taken. Often more than one is left wounded, because we are all so connected to each other. So the most basic intellectual wound is the false notion that reality is arbitrary. And we know that’s not true. Reality reflects God’s design for the human person.
Then we have all of the ongoing wounds that come from so many harmful things particularly from abortion. We have the walking-wounded in our culture – there’s something like a dramatic culture-wide post-traumatic stress disorder. I think back to an experience I had just a couple years ago. I was on a plane that started going down very briefly. It was only for like 30 seconds, maybe less. But you could tell the plane was going down, and it was very scary. People started screaming – one woman had a panic attack and had to be carried off the plane when we landed. But they caught it, and everything was fine. Well, every time I’ve gotten on a plane since, I’m so shaken up and afraid when there’s a little turbulence. And that was just a small experience for me, and it turned out fine.
But call to mind someone who has undergone abortion. Every time they hear noises that remind them, the wound is touched. Imagine the same for someone who has undergone some sort of violence against them, such as child abuse, or who has undergone divorce but hasn’t had healing yet. There are so many different things we weren’t humanly meant to carry with us. So the profundity of the healing that comes with understanding God’s plan for humanity and its full flourishing is so deep and so critical for dealing with the deepest questions of today. I think that helping students see that is the best thing a Catholic university can do today.
MShea: The false sense of the arbitrary that floods our understanding of reality and our contact with the world causes so much damage to young people. There is moral damage, obviously, but also personal damage. The idea that we have to construct the meaning of our lives, as opposed to discovering the meaning and purpose of our lives, puts so much pressure on the young. We see young women and men melt down under the weight of that extraordinary stress and burden of needing to construct the meaning of their own lives. It’s all opposed to the freedom that we have as believers, which allows us to say, “Lord, you put me here, what do you want? What do you need from me? Help me in all the ways I’m weak or inadequate.”
JM: You brought in an important theological perspective to what I had been saying philosophically – we are children of a loving Father who has a plan for us, and everything else is based on that.
MShea: Sure, but it’s helpful to think of it both philosophically and theologically. In terms of the struggle for the defense of life, it’s terrifically important for us to say that reality is real and that it’s not bad – it’s great! We don’t have to flee from reality because we’ve been placed here for a purpose by a loving Father.
You and I have talked in the past of our joyful endeavor here at the University of Mary of renaming our School of Health Sciences, which is our largest academic school, after St. Gianna Beretta Molla. So many students flock to the March for Life each year – high school students, thousands of college students from great places all across the country. Why is it so important that students, particularly health care students, have someone like St. Gianna as a model and patron, especially as they prepare for their vocations and their professional lives?
JM: Let me just say that I have a really deep devotion to St. Gianna. When she was Blessed Gianna, before she was canonized, I was blessed to have her gloves for a few weeks – a pair of blue gloves. A friend of mine who was helping with her cause for canonization let me have them for veneration and I gave talks about her and people could come and revere her relics – the gloves she had owned and worn. It was the most amazing experience.
As to the role of young people in the pro-life movement, I would like to borrow from Pope St. John Paul II the idea that young people are the best ambassadors for life!
We all need role models in life, because that helps us to see what it means to live humanly. It is so good to see these truths of the human person lived out, instead of just reading about them. To see these truths lived in the flesh makes such a difference. St. Gianna is a model par excellence for a health sciences student. She had this beautiful vocation of being a doctor, and she always saw that her professional vocation was at the service of life. To say it simply, she had her priorities straight. Her priorities weren’t confused, like so many bioethicists are confused today, carrying out false notions such as “the end justifies the means.” St. Gianna recognized clearly that her medical call was always at the service of life. Here she was, this woman of the world – she loved fashion, she loved skiing, she loved opera. She was so blessed to meet her handsome and great husband, Pietro, and fall madly in love with him. And she loved her children. Just to read her letters to her husband, and to see the tender affection and how they lived out the call to marriage in such a beautiful way, is a powerful thing. Her life was one of fullness and flourishing. And yet when she was expecting her daughter and getting very sick and the question arose as to whether she or her unborn daughter would survive, she chose the most heroic path. Ethically, she could have chosen different things in that moment, but she took the heroic path of choosing her child’s life over her own life.
So St. Gianna is a person we can emulate in many different ways. She serves as a model for medical professionals – again, understanding that the medical services are at the service of life, never the reverse. She serves as a model for mothers – her call is always to be at the service of her children. The most motherly thing a person can do is sacrifice herself for her children. That can be done in many ways, and St. Gianna Beretta did it with profound heroism. Finally, she serves as a model for wives and spouses. And obviously, her faith in God is something to emulate. She got life so right, and she was just so beautiful in so many ways. I love her!
MShea: We know her daughter really well at Mary, and she is so eager to come to the March! She can’t this year – she is stuck in Milan because of the pandemic – but sometime soon we hope to bring her to the March for Life.
We’re speaking on the cusp of the annual the March for Life. By the time it arrives this year, Roe v. Wade will be 48 years old. Many of those who will be joining the March for Life are quite a bit younger than 48! So what is the role of young people in the pro-life movement? I ask the question partly because I spend all my time thinking about and planning for the formation of young people, but I also ask it because there is something special about the March for Life that you really have to attend the March to perceive. Perhaps it is the presence of the Holy Spirit, but it feels like a very young event, like a movement in its vigor. It’s doesn’t feel like we’ve been marching for 48 years. What is the genius and the role of youth in the pro-life movement and in connection with the March for Life?
JM: I think there’s a simple answer to this, but I want to speak to it in a general way first. Young people tend to have a joy and enthusiasm that some of us lose – they happily lack the hardness of heart and cynicism that some of us acquire around these issues as we get older. They’re oriented toward social justice and human rights, and they know that social justice begins in the womb. We see that clearly in the General Social Survey, the governmental longitudinal study, which shows that young people are the single age cohort that has changed the most in the direction of life. Whereas in 1972 they were the most favorable toward any kind of abortion, now they’re the least favorable toward abortion, the very most pro-life. And anyone who comes to the March for Life sees that. It’s shocking for people who are coming to the March for the first time to discover the large majority of participants are the young. Their joy is so palpable and contagious, and even their signs are so creative!
As to the role of young people in the pro-life movement, I would like to borrow from Pope St. John Paul II the idea that young people are the best ambassadors for life! I think that’s true – they are our best spokespeople: in their youthfulness, their attractiveness, their creativity, their zeal. I think the young – of all of us – are the best ambassadors for life!