Washington D.C., Jan 24, 2020 / 06:40 am (CNA).- An estimated 18,000 young Catholics from around the country filled the Capital One Arena in downtown Washington, DC, Friday morning for the annual Youth Rally and Mass for Life.

Organized by the Archdiocese of Washington, the early morning rally opens a day of events for the March for Life each year. Doors opened just after 6am, but busloads of pilgrims and marchers had already arrived in the early hours of Jan. 24.

Many of the attendees had been up late at the previous evening’s Mass and Vigil for Life at the Basilica of National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception at the campus of The Catholic University of America.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Washington told media that the annual rally and Mass was the largest event hosted by the archdiocese every year.

“This is about our protest, our positive witness to the gift of life, on this anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This is what we do. We gather so that we can pray and we take action.”

Speaking to reporters during the rally, Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory talked about the significance of the event, his first since succeeding Cardinal Donald Wuerl last year.

CNA asked Gregory about the use of abortion as a political wedge issue by, and how the Church could help build unified culture of life, Gregory said the event showed the breadth and youth of the pro-life movement.

“First of all, [abortion] can be used in a very isolating way,” Gregory acknowledged.

“But part of the rally, part of our Catholic witness, is that while life within the womb is certainly threatened, on so many levels, it is the first step of the significance of life in all of its manifestations. So what we try to do, especially with our young people, is to say ‘it is the beginning,’ its not the end of our respect for human life and its dignity.”

“I think one of the things that this event does, and I am new to it, is it makes a promise that our witness to the dignity of life is youthful and it has a future,” Gregory said.

Gregory was also asked about the announced address by President Trump later in the day at the main rally for life on the National Mall, his closeness to the anti-abortion politically, but his divergence from the Church on other issues such as immigration and social welfare.

“The bishops of the United States have consistently, and for a long time, spoken about the integrity of our teaching on the dignity of human life. While the focus today in many respects will be on protecting life in the womb – that is not the end. Because of that, individuals from whatever political persuasion might decide to focus on one dimension, but we as Catholics have to say ‘we are grateful for that focus on that one dimension, but there is more to come.’”

The rally portion of the morning was led by Sr. Maria Juan of the Religious Sisters of Mercy, who opened the event calling out pilgrims from across the country and inviting young people, priests and religious to share their own experiences of this and past events.

The rally program also included an address from Melissa Ohden, founder of The Abortion Survivors Network, and herself an abortion survivor, while Christian rock bands and the choir of John Carroll High School kept energy levels high in the early morning.

Gregory greeted pilgrims and marchers on the arena floor before preparing for the 9am Mass, at which he was scheduled to be the principle celebrant, together with Archbishop Christoph Pierre, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States.   

The Washington archbishop pointed to the enthusiasm of the crowd as a clear sign that they were undeterred in the fight against abortion, even though the vast majority had never known a time when it was not legal.

“The fact that they have taken such an enthusiastic position is an indication that our future in our young people is bright. They have the right focus, they have the right intention, they have the energy to pull it off,” Gregory said.