Just as the sun rose on Jan. 22, thousands of Catholic teenagers and young adults from across the country poured into the Verizon Center to meet other pro-lifers, pray for the unborn and celebrate the joy of being alive at the 20th annual Youth Rally & Mass for Life sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington. Many, like Kansas City high schooler Megan Holzmeister, found that the combination of prayer, song and celebration kept them wide-awake in the early morning hours. “The atmosphere is amazing,” she said. “With all the young kids, it keeps it fun and upbeat, and it’s a great a opportunity to meet people.”

Before the Mass, several youths in brightly colored, coordinated sweatshirts joined the long Dunkin Donuts line before hopping into the equally long line for the sacrament of Penance. Others took pictures in the photo booths, and then tweeted them out along with #Mass4Life or #iStand4Life to show an online witness. Young adult Grace Duffley and her adopted brother Chris serenaded the crowd with “Hold Me” by Toby Mac and Jamie Grace, and then Chris, who is autistic and blind, sang and played “Open the Eyes of My Heart” on the piano. The youth leadership team, consisting of teens from youth groups in parishes around the archdiocese, led the Verizon Center in praying the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the main celebrant at the Mass, was joined by hundreds of priests and religious as well as dozens of bishops who traveled with their young people to Washington for the annual March for Life. He remarked that between the Verizon Center, the DC Armory, and 14 churches in the archdiocese, “We’ll have some 30,000 energetic young people representing the next generation. These young people are saying, ‘Let us embrace every mother, let us embrace every child, let us embrace all life.’ That’s a great message.”

In his homily, Father Mario Majano, a parochial vicar at Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in Takoma Park,said he considered a true hero to be someone who spoke up for the truth again and again. He gave an example of a woman who had three crisis pregnancies and chose life every time. In one instance her child was conceived in rape, and another child had the possibility of being born with severe disabilities because of the cancer treatment she was undergoing at the time. However the child was born healthy and grew up alongside her two siblings. “So thanks, Mama,” said Father Majano, looking over to his mother in the crowd. Everyone stood and applauded. 

Participants also heard a message from Pope Francis during the rally, through the apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. “To all those assembled for the March for Life and all who support them with their prayers and sacrifices, the Holy Father imparts his apostolic blessing,” read Archbishop Vigano. Pope Francis’ twitter account, @Pontifex, also sent out the simple message, “Every Life is a Gift. #marchforlife,” which was retweeted 19,000 times.

A number of the youth came to the rally with their parochial or Catholic high schools, including eighth-graders from St. Mary of the Assumption School in Upper Marlboro. Several of the eighth grade boys said they most enjoyed emcee DJ Bill, the Mass, and that “Cardinal Wuerl blessed the kids,” said Michael Gwinn. 

Montgomery College junior Sofia Alvarado came with members of the young adult and youth group at her parish, St. Martin of Tours in Gaithersburg. “I think it’s cool that we’re making a difference and showing we care about the issue,” she said. “We believe that life starts at conception and should be defended.”

Eleventh grader Abby Durniat from Atlanta said in an interview that she was pro-life because the doctors told her parents to abort her twin sisters, believing they would have mental disabilities. Her parents refused, and her sisters were born without any disabilities. “I don’t know where I‘d be without them,” Abby said, looking over at her sister Ally. Even though her sisters were born healthy, Abby said she believes in the value of a human life no matter what obstacle or disability faces a child. “I babysit a girl with Down syndrome, and she’s so important to me. Even when children have disabilities, they’re still kids, they’re still going to be a life that’s important,” she said.

After the rally and Mass, the participants headed over to the National Mall for the 41st annual March for Life. Catholic University students Mary Archer and Seth Tavera were there selling T-shirts that feature a pro-life quote from Pope Francis. The proceeds from the sales were going toward the students’ mission trips to Costa Rica, Belize and Jamaica. Archer and Tavera were also there with around 300-400 other Catholic University of America students to show their support for life. “Life is an inalienable right and it’s a tragedy that abortion is legal,” said Archer. “Plus, who doesn’t love little babies?”