WASHINGTON (CNS) — Despite the blizzard warnings in Washington Jan. 22, thousands of participants gathered for the annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life, sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington at the Verizon Center.

“I started coming in high school. It’s so wonderful seeing the energy and passion in young people fighting for life, spreading God’s love and selflessly promoting truly one of the most important causes in the world,” said Natalie Dagher, a junior at the University of Maryland, College Park, adding that she was overwhelmed at the impressive turnout despite the dire weather forecast. “They are even willing to sacrifice a little bit of safety to be here today.”

The annual rally, which takes place prior to the March for Life, typically draws young people from the Washington Archdiocese and other parts of the U.S. but many local trips were canceled since schools were closed in the area in anticipation of the winter storm.

About 7,000 youths filled the sports arena’s entire lower level and main floor.

Washington Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, the main celebrant of the Mass, said he was particularly moved to see such enthusiastic crowds defy the looming winter storm to attend.

Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the apostolic nuncio to the United States, several U.S. bishops, and dozens of archdiocesan priests and deacons joined Cardinal Wuerl in concelebrating the Mass.

In thanking the attendees for “speaking out for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Archbishop Vigano said they are making a “solid contribution to the renewal of American society.”

He also read a letter from Pope Francis, assuring participants of the pontiff’s closeness in prayer and recalling his September papal address to Congress where he urged the protection and defense of human life at every stage of development.

Many in the arena wore brightly colored hats, scarves and T-shirts, with pro-life messages, such as “Adoption Is the Loving Option.” Participants were encouraged to tweet about attending the #Mass4Life and many held signs reading #iStand4Life.

The jubilant crowd was made up mostly of high-school and college-age students, but it also included women religious, seminarians and Catholic youth and young adult leaders from nearby parishes and from Portland, Oregon, to St. Petersburg, Florida.

“What a great witness to life that despite the weather, these people persevered to the end,” said Sister Mary Sarah of the Dominican Sisters of Nashville, who accompanied a group of students from Aquinas College in Nashville.

Several young people with disabilities, accompanied by family members, brought up the gifts during the offertory procession.

Before the final blessing, Cardinal Wuerl thanked all those who participated in and planned the liturgy and urged the attendees to get home safely. “It’s going to be a bad day weather-wise, but up until now, it’s been a great day!” he said.

The mood was similar at another Youth Rally and Mass for Life sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington at the D.C. Armory and attended by about 3,000 youths who came from as far away as Michigan and Illinois. Because of the snow threats, the attendance was down from the expected 10,000.

“The snow is not important because we came to participate in the March for Life and to stand up for life,” said Jair Martinez, who traveled with a group from Passaic, New Jersey.

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Barry C. Knestout welcomed the group and thanked them for braving the inclement weather to stand up for life.

“You guys are real troupers,” the bishop said. “You have expressed and shown your beautiful, clear witness to life.”

Bishop Knestout was a concelebrant of the Mass with principal celebrant Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, the vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the former chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. Father Pawel Sass, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish in Washington, was homilist.

Father Sass urged the pro-lifers to rely on their faith as they defend life and many of the young people at the rally seemed to be doing just that.

“My faith in God tells me that millions of babies dying is deeply wrong,” said Anthony Pizana, who came with a youth group from Griffin, Indiana.

His fellow Hoosier, Autumn Zager, said, “I know I am here for a reason — God wants me to be here. He has led me to understand completely what it means to be pro-life.”

Another Jan. 22 rally and Mass sponsored by the Archdiocese of Washington was the Adult and Family Rally and Mass for Life at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

A keynote speaker at the rally was Mark Pickup, a Canadian who has multiple sclerosis, who addressed about 200 participants from a motorized scooter near the cathedral’s altar.

Pickup, a pro-life speaker and writer, said the drive to legalize physician-assisted suicide in the U.S. runs counter to the founding principles of the United States.

“The advocates of assisted suicide and euthanasia are masters at twisting words and using euphemisms and making evil appear good and good appear evil,” he said.

When Pickup was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his 30s, he went through periods of grief as he faced losing mobility in his hands, arms and legs. He said he may have fallen prey to thoughts of assisted suicide, which some advocates now propose as a solution to people facing severe illnesses and disabilities. If he had let grief cloud his judgment and given into despair, Pickup said he would never have known his five grandchildren.

“What gives my life quality today is to love and be loved,” he said.

After the rally, Washington Auxiliary Bishop Mario E. Dorsonville celebrated a Mass for Life at the cathedral. The rally and Mass were sponsored by the archdiocese and by the Association of Ecclesial Movements and New Communities.

In his homily, Father Daniel Leary, the pastor of St. Andrew Apostle Parish in Silver Spring, Maryland, said the severe winter weather might mean smaller crowds for the annual March for Life, but he said the snowstorm might also mean that abortion clinics would be closed the next day.

Defending life can be challenging, the priest said, adding that it is fundamental for people to realize they are sons and daughters of God, and to treat others likewise. “Don’t be afraid. What we must do today, every day, is stand for life.”


Boyle writes for the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington. Contributing to this report were Catholic Standard staff writer Richard Szczepanowski and editor Mark Zimmermann.