WASHINGTON (CNS) — Before going to the National Mall to participate in the 44th annual March for Life, nearly 18,000 youth from around the country filled the Verizon Center arena Jan. 27 for the rally and Mass for Life sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington.

“I personally feel like the March for Life and rallies are so powerful because it reminds you there are more people who believe in the sanctity of life than you think,” said Natalie Tipton, who traveled 13 hours overnight on a bus from St. Benedict High School in Memphis, Tennessee. “It increases your faith and reminds you that you are not alone.”

Tipton added that the pro-life movement is especially important to her because her dad was adopted before Roe v. Wade, and she sometimes wonders what would have happened if he were born after the landmark 1973 court case.

“Life is something that we take for granted as a right,” said Caroline Heisey, who attended the rally with youth from St. John Francis Regis Parish in Hollywood, Maryland. “We were given the right to live and it is not up to us to take it away from someone else,” she told the Catholic Standard, Washington’s archdiocesan newspaper.

Kelly Caulfield, who attended the rally with two of her friends from St. John the Evangelist Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, expressed a similar sentiment, saying, “A person is a person, no matter how small, disabled or incapable.”

Father Richard Kramer, director of family life and pastoral resource development for the archdiocese, offered a prayer to begin the rally, inviting the Holy Spirit to bless everyone who was gathered and “make us worthy apostles of the culture of life in our day.”

Steve Angrisano and the Josh Blakesley Band led everyone in song, and many of the youth sang along.

As a group of middle school students from St. Joseph’s Regional Catholic School in Beltsville, Maryland, enthusiastically participated in the call and response chant, where the girls said, “He’s the best!” and the boys responded, “J-E-S-U-S.” Seventh-grader Alexa Desormeaus said people came to the rally “to enjoy life and celebrate life.”

Regina Bethencourt gave a witness talk to the youth, where she told the story of her sister, who was born with trisomy 18, a rare condition similar to, but more severe than Down syndrome. Children born with the condition usually don’t make it to the first year of their life.

Her sister only lived to 10 weeks, but during that time, Bethencourt said, she saw how her sister’s life and her parents’ conversations with others witnessed to the dignity of life. Her sister’s funeral was standing-room only.

“It was her life that showed me how great and beautiful the world could be with a little hope and a little faith,” Bethencourt said. “It is remarkable to think she could have such an impact without ever uttering a word.”

“The beauty of new life brought into the world … is so much bigger, so much brighter, and so much more powerful than the most devastating of physical defects,” she added.

Standing up for life can be terrifying and hard, Bethencourt told the youth, but looking out into the sea of young people surrounding her, she said, “I see bravery, I see strength and I see character.”

For Viola Lohsen, a senior at St. John’s College High School in Washington, being pro-life stands for more than just the rights of the unborn, because she also feels passionately about issues such as capital punishment. She said she someday hopes to do more to defend life, such as volunteering at a shelter that provides physical and emotional support to women, but for now, attending the rally is a good way to stand up for life.

“It is a chance to get close to God and help us appreciate the life he’s given us,” said Daniel Patino, an eighth-grader at St. Andrew the Apostle in Silver Spring.

“It shows to the rest of the world that even if we are young, we can still try to make the world a better place,” said Aurelie Moutran, who traveled all the way from New Canaan, Connecticut, with St. Aloysius Parish.

“I definitely think all of God’s kids should be protected,” said Nancy Leville, a sophomore at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. “Not only the ones standing here today, but also those who don’t have a voice for themselves.”

Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl was the principal celebrant of the Mass, accompanied by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, along with cardinals, bishops and priests from around the country. As Cardinal Wuerl introduced each bishop, who came from dioceses such as Lincoln, Nebraska, and Portland, Maine, youth from their respective dioceses cheered.

At the beginning of the Mass, Cardinal Wuerl noted that in addition to the gathering at the Verizon Center, a crowd of nearly 10,000 Catholic youth was gathered at the DC Armory.

“Here, across this city, we all bear witness to this ‘Gospel of Life,’” he said.

Archbishop Pierre delivered a message on behalf of Pope Francis that assured the youth of his “closeness in prayer,” and said he was “grateful for the impressive testimony to the sacredness of human life” that they provided. The pope also imparted an apostolic blessing to the youth rally and Mass participants as a pledge of strength and peace in the Lord.

Father Conrad Murphy, the parochial vicar at Holy Redeemer Parish in College Park, Maryland, was the homilist, and told the youth “it is a real joy to be here with you.”

“Although we are here to protest the tragedy that is abortion, we are here to do so much more,” he said. “We are here to build a culture of life.”

He reminded the youth, “each of us, from the smallest infant in the womb to the elderly are created by God,” which he called an “incredible truth.” Because of that truth, he encouraged the youth to “protest with joy and smiles.”

“Building a culture of life isn’t easy,” Father Murphy reminded the students, adding that it is easier when they are surrounded by friends and music, but harder when they go back to daily life.

“When we strive to be holy, that is when the world starts to change,” he said. “Your personal holiness will save lives and change lives.”