World Youth Day 1993: ‘A revolution’

The Denver Catholic Register recently interviewed Cardinal J. Francis Stafford of Rome, former archbishop of the Denver Archdiocese (1986-1996), about Denver’s World Youth Day 1993, which he oversaw. An abridged version of this Q-and-A ran in the July 17 Register.JPII-and-CardStafford

By Roxanne King

Q: What was your role for Denver’s WYD 1993 and what did that entail?

Cardinal Stafford: On Palm Sunday 1992, the Holy Father, Blessed John Paul II, publicly designated Denver as the site for the 1993 World Youth Day. The people of the Archdiocese of Denver, public officials, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops staff, the U.S. bishops’ ad hoc committee, the Pontifical Council for the Laity, and myself (assisted by then-Father Edward Buelt as archdiocesan coordinator) began work on how best to extend hospitality to the pope and hundreds of thousands of pilgrims coming to Denver Aug. 11-15, 1993. Then-Father Samuel Aquila, now Denver archbishop, planned and implemented the complex sacred liturgies.


Q: Why was Denver selected for the event?

Cardinal Stafford: Ultimately the choice was due to the inscrutable will of God. The contingencies are dependent on his choice. In 1991, a Church official in Washington indicated that Pope John Paul II was inclined to choose Denver as the site of the 1993 WYD. He asked whether the archdiocese would welcome it. The pope’s question took me by surprise. The reply was simple. Two further steps were necessary: to pray about it and to discuss it with Coloradans. The affair would be a high-profile, worldwide, pastoral initiative. Were the capacities of the archdiocese adequate for such an extraordinary event? Did we have an interiority based on the knowledge of how profoundly God loves our Church? It was consoling that the pope thought we did. Everyone was aware that each local Church stands on the brink of the abyss, the abyss of sin and guilt. Were we even more aware that the source of our greatness was God’s love for our Church? On its own, no human act merits God’s attention. St. Paul’s sobering assessment of Christians merited reflection, “But what do you have that you have not received? And if you have received it, why do you glory, as if you had not received it?”  Without God’s grace we could do nothing. But it also became clear that God wished to pour out abundant graces on the peoples of the state of Colorado. They are generous and creative. Our Cathedral Basilica, the Samaritan House, and seminary chapel demonstrate that. Praying for a habit of virtue, I decided that whatever we did by faith informed with love, despite our inadequacies and limitations, would be taken up by God and renewed by his Holy Spirit (Alain Cugno). The actions of Coloradans would find a meaning given them by God alone. So I said “yes” to the event and placed it under the care of Our Lady of the New Advent, hoping for a superabundant measure.


Q: Take us back to 1993: what were the event planners’ expectations for the event and what actually occurred?

Cardinal Stafford: In the beginning the expectations were low. The youth and young adult outreach of the Catholic Church since 1968 had spiraled downhill. Many were wringing their hands. The Woodstock generation and its sequel seemed tone-deaf to Jerusalem and Rome. Different generations lived apart, each constructing its own Tower of Babel. An abyss separated Woodstock and Cherry Creek Park. Intergenerational communication was atrophying. On the national scene in Washington, pessimism prevailed. It was predicted that the papal initiative would attract no more than 20,000 young people. Mile High Stadium would be more than adequate, they said, for the activities culminating with the vigil and papal Mass. The very identity of the event provoked controversy. Some reached back into the Catholic tradition and called it a pilgrimage. Others disagreed and insisted that the term was anachronistic. Catholic young people had moved beyond pilgrimages. Meanwhile, in Rome, reports were circulating in the papal apartment about the sharp increase in Denver murders in 1993. Visions of an American “Wild West” revived in Europe. And yet, against all odds, registrations of young “pilgrims” were exceeding all expectations. They were flowing in from everywhere. We searched very rapidly for a more expansive site (for the closing Mass) and eventually settled on Cherry Creek State Park with the indispensable help of state and local officials.


Q: Denver’s WYD wasn’t a traditional pilgrimage experience where one goes to a particular sacred site. What were pilgrims making pilgrimage to and where were they to encounter God?

Cardinal Stafford: The young people of the world transformed the image of Denver. From a secularized city it was seen to embrace a Church of prayer and charity where God is loved above all things. Before 1993 Denver was a kind of spiritual “no-place”; after 1993 Cherry Creek State Park became a crucial place of conversion for the young, similar to the Patriarch Jacob’s “Penuel” (experience of seeing the “Face of God”) by the stream of Jabbok. Before Jacob’s desperate struggle in the dark with a mysterious stranger, the place by the stream Jabbok was a no-place. After the indeterminate outcome of the nocturnal wrestling bout left Jacob (now renamed Israel) limp, Penuel became crucial for belief in the one God. Likewise, on the banks of Cherry Creek, young men and women from across the world together with the people of Colorado became the spiritual stones reconstituting the Church of Denver. The city is now viewed as an international center of Catholic renewal and reform. Penuel anticipated Denver. The stream of Jabbok became Denver’s Cherry Creek. That historic transformation continues. In the flash of the sunlit skies of 1993 Denver, communication between bishops and young people was rekindled. In returning to Rome, the pope was delighted and the Roman Curia was dumbstruck.


Q: What was the greatest challenge of the WYD week or of the day itself?   

Cardinal Stafford: The greatest challenge was to restrain my wonder over the miracles of grace taking place every day before our eyes. World Youth Day 1993 was an incredibly paradoxical affair.  What happened in 1993 where the Great Plains meet the Rocky Mountains was the sudden, unexpected presence of God in a postmodern city. Later, Pope John Paul II described it as a “revolution.” On Aug. 11, 1993, it all began with Mass at Civic Center Park on the 800th anniversary of the birth of St. Clare of Assisi in a medieval Umbrian commune and ended on the solemnity of the Assumption of Mary at Cherry Creek Park. The Cherry Creek waterway also marked the crossroads of various Native American tribes and the place where their annual encounters prospered.


Q: What was the greatest joy for you in being part of WYD 1993?

Cardinal Stafford: To see the surprise on the face of Pope John Paul II when he arrived at Mile High Stadium on the last helicopter. His arrival coincided with the appearance of a rainbow over the mountains in the southwest sky. Young people were pointing to it in wonder. The pope wept openly before the thunderous ovations of the universal Church. I was even more humbled by the faces of the young people themselves as the Holy Father was driven around the periphery of the stadium to bless them. Many bishops must have prayed that Thursday afternoon that the Church would not betray the astonishing, open, heartfelt trust of those youthful Catholics. Their witness surprised everyone.


Q: How much interaction did you have with Pope John Paul II?

Cardinal Stafford: I accompanied the pope each day from Aug. 11 when he arrived until Aug. 15 when he left. Together with a small group of Secret Service men and staff we climbed part of the way up Mount Meeker in the Rocky Mountains on Friday afternoon. We followed the trail by the stream behind St. Malo Retreat Center. The pope stopped twice, resting in the grass by the stream. He asked for a book of German poetry and read quietly from it at each of the 20-minute pauses.


Q: What was the pope like?

Cardinal Stafford: The pope had an expansive spirit. He embraced everyone with confidence and charity. The children at Mount St. Vincent Home saw this side of him in spades. His presence was powerful and firm, but not overwhelming or dominating or overbearing. “Gentle” may best describe him. During the entire time he never showed any irritation or impatience. Not once. He represented well St. Peter, the Man of Rock. He seemed always ready to accept the will of the One with infinite Patience who listened to him.


Q: What were the effects of the WYD experience on you personally?

Cardinal Stafford: St. John of the Cross taught me a long time ago that doing “God’s will means knowing and wanting one’s will to be used by God as he wishes” (Alain Cugno). That teaching was reinforced by the experience of the 1993 World Youth Day. Beforehand, I did not know what God’s express will for the 1993 event in Denver was. Dolores and Oclides Manzanares wrote brief verses and sent them to Rome one or two years after my arrival in 1996. It accompanied a striking watercolor of “Butterfly Hill” in Cherry Creek State Park where the final events took place: Butterfly Hill/“Where Colorado offered the world a measure of hope.” Rivers of hope flowed from Butterfly Hill in 1993.  They were Denver’s unexpected, unforgettable gifts to the world. They upended everything. That expresses my understanding today of what happened. The great question remains: What will we do with this legacy?


Q: What were the effects of the WYD experience on the local and on the universal Church?

Cardinal Stafford:  Denver, Colo., and the universal Catholic Church were transformed by the event. The front page headline of the Sunday Denver Post on Aug. 22, 1993, said it all: “World Youth Day: Awesome.” It had become not only a Denver Catholic Church event but an event of the state of Colorado. The national and regional increase in religious and priestly vocations is directly traceable to that event. Our two Denver seminaries would not be what they are today without it. They may not have come into existence without it. Only God knows. Finally, at the luncheon on Aug. 15 at the Cathedral Basilica rectory, the archbishops of Paris, Toronto, and, I believe, Manila told me that, based upon their Denver experience they were determined to host a World Youth Day in their sees.


Q: What were the effects of the World Youth Day experience on Pope John Paul II?

Cardinal Stafford: On April 28, 1994, the Holy Father fell and an artificial hip was surgically implanted. The operation was only partially successful. Thereafter the tone of the pontificate changed. Its effects upon others was evident. In September 1994, hundreds of young Coloradans openly wept at a Mass celebrated by a visibly diminished pope at Castel Gandolfo outside of Rome. I watched him as he descended the stairs step by careful step to celebrate the Mass in the courtyard of the papal Villa. His terribly pained face was almost too much for me to look upon. The change was marked and gave hints of what God’s will now called forth from the papacy of John Paul II. He was to give witness to the ancient truth, the mystery of the body is the mystery of the passion. From emphasis on strong, aggressive initiatives, the heart of the papacy muted into the pope’s mission of visible suffering on behalf of the Church and all humanity. The passivity and poverty of his body uncovered the highest activity of the person, the exercise of his free will. Deteriorating health took the edge off his boundless creativity and energy still obvious only a year before at WYD Denver. The change was a dominating feature of the next 11 years of his papacy until his death in 2005.


Q: You have said Blessed John Paul II called Denver’s World Youth Day, “a revolution.” What did the Holy Father mean by that?

Cardinal Stafford: In the Vatican Palace’s Sala Clementina in October 1993, just two months after Denver’s WYD, the pope greeted me with these words, “Ah! Denver, una rivoluzione!” and immediately moved on. Several days later an official of the secretariat of state of the Vatican helped to highlight the pope’s intention. He said, “In the past before World Youth Day 1993 in Denver, Pope John Paul II had expected that the spiritual revolution within the Church would be initiated by the young people of the Catholic Churches in Eastern Europe. After Denver, he expected the anticipated spiritual “revolution” to be emanating also from young Catholics of the West, especially the Americas. Lux ex oriente et etiam ex occidente—‘Light from the East as well as from the West.’”

Roxanne King: 303-715-3215;;