The Capital One Arena in Washington, which typically houses professional basketball and hockey games and sold-out concerts, was filled with thousands of youth from around the country who gathered there to stand up for life on Jan 19.

The Archdiocese of Washington’s annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life preceded the 45th annual March for Life, which is held every year around the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the United States.

As groups filtered into the arena before sunrise, the band “Out of Darkness” welcomed them with worship music.

“It felt inspiring to me to see a lot of Catholics come together for something that is important to the Church,” said Ashley Arevalo, a student at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Maryland. “It felt important to me to be a part of it…We were all created in [God’s] image…everyone should be loved for who they are, no matter the circumstance.”

Grace Mesmer, a seventh grader attending the rally with Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Lexington Park, Maryland, was also struck by seeing so many of her peers gather in one place.

“I love seeing all the other people who share the same beliefs as me,” she said.

Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl, upon entering the arena, expressed a similar admiration for the amount of people who had come to the rally.

“This is so, so exciting to see this entire arena filled with thousands and thousands of young people,” he told the Catholic Standard. “The next generation is every bit as committed to life as the current generation. It tells us that the future is very bright.”

Emily Wilson, the emcee for the event, recalled her own experience as a young person feeling that it was difficult to stand up for her pro-life beliefs.

“In high school and college, sharing my pro-life beliefs was so unpopular,” she said. “Perhaps you’ve been mocked or ridiculed by peers or even teachers…what you go through each and every day can be so discouraging.”

But despite this difficulty, she said, “These days it is our opportunity to be the pro-life generation…to not be afraid to stand up for the most vulnerable.”

When all the students return to their schools and communities, Wilson said they can find strength in what they witnessed at that rally.

“When it is hard to stand for life in your daily life, you can remember what you saw today…the compassion, the joy, the love,” she said.

Tony Falcone, who attended the rally with Our Lady of Mercy Parish in Potomac, Maryland, said he was attending the rally to “pray and be an active voice for the unborn.”

Aaron Carmichael, an eighth grader at St. Columba School in Oxon Hill, Maryland, said he and his classmates were there because, “We are taught that abortion is wrong.”

“Everyone deserves a right to life,” he said. “We are here to testify [to] that.”

Ryan Bomberger, the event’s keynote speaker, told the youth the story of how he was conceived through rape, but that his mother courageously chose life. He was adopted, and grew up in a family with 12 siblings, of different races and different abilities. Of the 13 kids, 10 of them were adopted.

Growing up in this environment taught him that “diversity is powerful,” he said, but “sometimes what we share is more powerful.”

“Everyone in this arena has special needs,” he said. “…To love and to be loved.”

The rally also included a performance by Aztec dancers, and a reenactment of St. Juan Diego presenting the tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas. Prior to the Mass, the Archdiocese of Washington Youth Leadership Team led the people in the arena in praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet.

The Mass, which was celebrated by Cardinal Wuerl and about 20 other bishops, including Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop emeritus of Washington; Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell, Jr.; and Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the archbishop of Galveston-Houston. They were also joined by about 200 priests from around the country who came together for that Mass.

As he opened the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl said the gathering was “a very dramatic manifestation of the New Evangelization,” which is “the call to be confident in our faith and invite others to join us.”

Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, read a message from Pope Francis that gave a warm greeting and assurance of his closeness in prayer. Later in the Mass, Cardinal Donald Wuerl gave the blessing that would allow participants to receive a plenary indulgence, if they also go to Confession, receive Communion, and pray for the intentions of the pope.

Father Martino Choi, the parochial vicar of St. Patrick Parish in Rockville, Maryland, was the homilist for the Mass. He, like Bomberger, is alive because of his mother’s courageous choice to embrace life.

When his mom was pregnant with him, the doctor said that he would be born with birth defects and only have a year to live, so he encouraged her to have an abortion. But instead, she chose life.

It was not that his parents were capable of “superhuman love” that made this possible, said Father Choi, but “what they had was faith.”

“They recognized this life is a gift from God,” he said. “They recognized that every human life is loved by God.”

Noting the 60 million babies that have been aborted in the United States since Roe v. Wade, Father Choi said it is impossible to know what they would have become.

“Every life has a role to play in making God’s love known,” he said.

During the offertory, four students with special needs served as the gift bearers, delivering the bread and wine to Cardinal Wuerl. Later, the Eucharist was distributed throughout the entire arena, as thousands of people prayerfully came forward to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

At the conclusion of the Mass, many of those thousands of people once again left their seats and walked out of the arena to attend the March for Life, where they would walk up Constitution Avenue to the Supreme Court building and U.S. Capitol, witnessing to the dignity of life.

“God has blessed me to be here today and to be a witness,” said Victoria Cole, an eighth grade student at St. Columba.

“I think everyone should have a chance at life,” said Amaka Chukwura, another eighth grader at St. Columba. “I don’t think it’s right to take away someone’s life without giving them the opportunity to live a good one.”