DENVER — Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila’s own awakening “to the truth of the dignity of human life” came while he was a college student considering a career as a doctor.20130123cnsbr13572 A young girl peers over the congregation during a Mass for the unborn at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles Jan. 19. Jan 22 marked the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing abortion. (CNS photo/Victor Aleman, Vida Nueva)

After starting college in 1968, he also worked as a hospital orderly, and during a couple of work shifts, he “witnessed the results of two abortions,” he said, and “the memory haunts me.”

“I witnessed the death of two small people who never had the chance to take a breath. I can never forget that,” Archbishop Aquila wrote in a pastoral letter released Jan. 22, the 40th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton decisions legalizing abortion virtually on demand in the United States.

“I have never been the same. My faith was weak at the time,” he said in the pastoral, noting that he wasn’t “even aware” some states “had approved abortion laws.”

“But I knew by reason, and by what I saw, that a human life was destroyed,” he continued. “My conscience awakened to the truth of the dignity of the human being from the moment of conception. I became pro-life and eventually returned to my faith.”

Forty years of “sanctioned killing” because of Roe “has given the culture of death a firm footing and foundation in our nation,” he said, and urged Catholics to commit anew to “a culture of life.”

Special Masses, prayer vigils and other events around the country marked the Roe anniversary.

In Washington, pro-life advocates demonstrated in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and March for Life officials finalized plans for the annual event that draws tens of thousands of Catholics and other pro-life advocates from across the country to the National Mall.

This year, the annual March for Life was set for Jan. 25 – instead of Jan. 22 – to accommodate participants because the anniversary date fell the day after public ceremonies for the presidential inauguration.

On Jan. 26, the ninth annual Walk for Life West Coast was scheduled to take place in San Francisco. The event drew 40,000 participants last year.

About 500 people from across Iowa gathered in Des Moines Jan. 19 for the first Midwest March for Life, organized by Iowa Right to Life. Gov. Terry Branstad greeted the participants and Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines offered the invocation.

The marchers circled the Iowa Capitol, “utilizing the symbolism of the Israelites marching around the walled city of Jericho,” organizers said. Faith leaders lead people in prayer at different points in the march.

In New York City, a prayer vigil was held across the street from an abortion clinic. It drew more than 400 participants. The Jan. 22 vigil followed a rosary procession that began at St. Patrick’s Cathedral after a Mass with Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan as the principal celebrant.

In his homily, he called the Roe anniversary “one of our gloomiest days” and “America at her least noble.”

Later he told a CBS radio reporter that “the abortion culture, the culture of death, seems to have a stranglehold on the United States,” but he also said prayer gives pro-life advocates “a sense of hope” that “the most basic civil right of all – the right to life” will be restored in law.

The Detroit Archdiocese planned to host hundreds of attendees at its third annual “Life is a Gift” conference Jan. 26 at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.

Roe v. Wade “has done women no favors,” said Judith Maten, archdiocesan director of evangelization and catechesis and emcee for the conference.

“In the Catholic Church, we are focused on the dignity of life – and it goes to the very heart of Catholic social teaching,” she said in a statement. The conference offered a chance “to recommit ourselves to the truths we profess about life – especially as much of secular society, and even the government, oppose our ideals,” she added.

In the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa., church bells tolled Jan. 22. “We hope that as the bells are ringing that people will stop to pray for the many families that have been injured by the sad and tragic abortion decision,” Fr. Paul Schenck, director of the diocese’s Respect Life Office, said in a statement issued in advance of the event.

In their statement on the Roe anniversary, the Catholic bishops of Nebraska said:

“We pray that 40 years ‘in the desert’ with Roe v. Wade will be followed by what Blessed John Paul II called a ‘new culture of human life.’ Although the struggle to build a culture of life will continue to be challenging, there are signs of hope,” they said.

“Large and growing numbers of young people are filling the ranks of the pro-life movement, ultrasound technology has revealed, in unmistakable detail, the humanity of the unborn child, and increasing numbers of post-abortive women are speaking out to say abortion hurts women and women deserve better.”

They added: “As followers of Christ, we should be equally reassured by our faith that this struggle is not premised upon a victory to be achieved in the future but on a victory that has already been achieved by our Lord’s death and resurrection. … Our Lord calls us to be faithful and persistent in our efforts to proclaim and defend the sacred dignity of human life.”

It was signed by Archbishop George J. Lucas of Omaha, Bishop James D Conley of Lincoln and Bishop William J. Dendinger of Grand Island.

“Abortion is seen as the solution to an unforeseen problem,” stated Florida’s Catholic bishops. “No person, made in the image and likeness of God, is a problem. In fact each human being is a blessing from God.”

In Denver, Archbishop Aquila was the main celebrant at an annual Respect Life Mass Jan. 20 at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. He also presided at a prayer service outside a women’s center across the street from Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains

In his pastoral, he said that 40 years of legalized abortion have “coarsened us. We’ve learned to see people as problems and objects. … Our nation has found new ways to weaken the family, to marginalize the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill – we’ve found new ways to exploit and abuse.”

He asked Catholics to join him “in a new resolve to build a culture which sees with the eyes of God … Today is a day to repent. But with repentance comes resolve to start anew,” he wrote. “The 40th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade is a day to commit to a culture of life. Today the Lord is calling us to stand up.”