WASHINGTON, D.C., January 22, 2014 ( – Hockey, concerts, and basketball were put to the side as thousands of youth attended Mass, had their confessions heard, and joined a rousing pro-life rally in Washington, D.C. early Wednesday morning – several hours before the commencement of the official March for Life rally on Capitol Hill. 

Started 24 years ago, the Archdiocese of Washington's annual Youth Rally & Mass for Life has spread to two locations – the Verizon Center and the National Guard Armory – and this year pro-life students packed the two lower levels of the Verizon Center, normally the home of sports fans and concert-goers.

A spokesperson told that 18,000 tickets were given out for the Verizon Center's event and 8,000 tickets were given to students for the Armory event. However, canceled buses and flights due to the winter weather likely put a dent in the final numbers in attendance.   

Running on caffeine and too-little sleep, students kicked off the day starting at 7:30 listening to praise and worship music. Confession was next, and Mass finished the morning's events.

During his sermon, Father Michael Paris of St. Patrick's Church in Rockville, Maryland, compared God's love for humanity to that which many people have for their pets. “Did you ever get on all fours and want to cuddle your pet and see the world as it does?” He said this is similar to God's love, declaring that, “God loves us so much that he wanted to become one of us, he wanted to be like us, to feel what we feel, he wanted to see what we see, he wanted to know the joys that you have and the sorrows that you have, even to go to the point of suffering the pain of our sins, and dying on the cross for us.” 

“Because His love is so intense, God's Son became man, Jesus Christ. Amen?” he asked

In speaking of how pro-life students can be confident in their work, Paris said they need to keep three thoughts in mind: “God loves me, God has a plan for me, so I got this!” 

“Remember those words,” Paris closed. “The Holy Spirit will give us everything we need. No one is an accident. Each person has the face of Jesus Christ. And if we believe that, than abortion cannot stand.” 

Numerous speakers, including Cardinal Weurl, praised attendees for standing for life despite the bitter cold. “Considering it’s freezing outside, the thousands of youth here [at the rally and Mass] shows how much value they place on human life,” he said. 

But according to students who spoke with, the cold took nothing away from the experience of the March. “It's a great opportunity to take a stand against abortion,” said 15-year old New Hampshire native Terez Kristen. 

Henry Ayala drove 13 hours to attend the March with 120 students from the Diocese of Nashville. It was his fourth year attending the March. “It's wonderful for the kids,” he said. “We're not trying to change the minds – not so much – of Congress, but to change the minds of the kids. That's what we're trying to accomplish. That's the reason I enjoy it, because I see the changes that are taking place.” 

The highlight of the rally was a letter from Pope Francis, sent through the Vatican’s secretary of state and read by the U.S. papal nuncio, Archbishop Vigano, that expressed the pope's gratitude “to all those who take part in this outstanding public witness to the right to life of the unborn.” The pontiff also sent a Tweet in support of the March, saying he “[joined] the March for Life in Washington with my prayers.” 

Two seniors at University of Jesuit High School in Detroit said they were with 42 other students from their pro-life club. “It's gotten a lot bigger this year,” said Liam Lynch. “We used to send four to twelve guys a year.”

Both first-year attendees of the March, Lynch and Tyler Johnson said they are looking forward to sharing their pro-life perspectives when they enter college. When asked what their key points will be to those who might disagree on abortion in their future discussions, Lynch said he “can't get over the fact that a fetus' heart beats four weeks in. After conception, it's very early when it starts getting a pulse, and I can't see someone taking the life of something that has the potential to live on its own.” 

According to Johnson “it's a scientific fact that life begins at conception, and life is the fundamental right of all human beings.”