“Ah, Denver—una rivoluzione (a revolution)!” That was Pope John Paul II’s succinct summary, given with a broad smile to then-Archbishop J. Francis Stafford two months after experiencing World Youth Day 1993.
Indeed, the international gathering of Catholic youth and visit of now-St. John Paul II that Denver hosted 30 years ago launched a spiritual revolution whose effects were immediately visible and whose abundant fruits continue today.
From violence to peace
In 1993, the Mile High City was full of fear, terrorized by random gang activity that took innocent lives that spring and early summer. The media called it “the summer of violence.” But during the Aug. 11-15 World Youth Day celebration, to the astonishment of law enforcement, city officials and the general public, violence and major crime ceased. It was replaced by the goodwill, peace and joy shared by the young pilgrims.
“Patience, kindness, joy, goodness, self-control. All of those are fruits of the Holy Spirit,” noted Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, who was Denver’s archbishop in 1993. “We saw that, and the young people saw that. In seeing that, they saw Christ. Christ is perceived in the body of the Church, which is his body. The Church is the body of Jesus.”
“The fact that it was totally peaceful during that time gave witness to … the message of the Gospel and the peace that Christ can bring when one opens their hearts,” said Archbishop Samuel Aquila, who was director of liturgy for the archdiocese in 1993 and helped plan the WYD liturgies.
“When young people gather at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in peace, then peace reigns,” noted Msgr. Edward Buelt. Now a parish pastor, he served as executive director and vice president of logistics for WYD ‘93.
A rock star pope
While the peace and joy that transformed a city experiencing terrifying violence were among the first fruits of Denver’s WYD, tied to that was the number of pilgrims the event drew. Media had predicted that the event, which is a pilgrimage to encounter Christ and deepen faith, would not appeal to American teens unfamiliar with the tradition and whose culture was known more for it’s cafeteria Catholicism. Naysayers also pointed to the pope’s age, 73, as a deterrent.
It was predicted that no more than 20,000 people would attend the WYD program of catechesis, liturgies and cultural events. Pope John Paul II would celebrate a closing Mass at Cherry Creek State Park. Organizers optimistically planned for 60,000. Registrations quickly hit the 150,000 mark. Final registration reached an astonishing 500,000.
“We know there were walk-ons, particularly for the final Mass,” Archbishop Dennis Schnurr, WYD ’93 national director, said in 2013. “It was 750,000 people there.”
Media likened the numbers to a “Catholic Woodstock.” They compared the emotional outpouring of love for Pope John Paul II with that given to a “rock star.” The pop culture portrayal fit an Aug. 12 event at Denver’s Mile High Stadium to welcome the pope that drew more than 90,000 people.
“When John Paul II’s helicopter hovered over and then landed at Mile High Stadium everyone was stomping their feet and the stadium was shaking—you could just feel the energy,” recalled Tim Gray, co-founder and president of the Augustine Institute graduate school. In 1993, Gray chaperoned two busloads of youths from Rapid City, S.D. accompanied by his boss, then-Bishop Charles Chaput. “I’ve never been at another event with the energy and enthusiasm of all those youths who were so excited about the vicar of Christ coming to them and speaking to them in the name of Christ. It was really powerful.”
Indeed, the youths’ thunderous cheers of “John Paul II, we love you!” created turbulence that rocked the pope’s helicopter akin to what the pilot had experienced in the Vietnam War, wrote George Weigel in his papal biography Witness to Hope.
A city within a city
Archbishop Stafford’s response when he received the call that the pope had selected Denver for WYD ’93?
“Like (the prophet) Jeremiah, I stammered a little bit,” he recalled with a chuckle. “But trusting in the Lord and his fidelity to us, I agreed. … I have to say, it was a labor of love preparing for it because the people of the archdiocese and the people of the state were 100 percent supportive.”
Other collaborators included the Vatican on the international level, the U.S. bishops on the national level, and the federal government—President Bill Clinton provided the seven helicopters for the pope’s entourage. Organizers had to find housing, food and transportation for the pilgrims.
“That required an enormous amount of involvement,” Cardinal Stafford said. “We had to establish a temporary city within the city that would serve thousands of visitors (at Cherry Creek State Park).”
Because the pope is also a head of state, the U.S. Secret Service was involved, which required meticulous planning for the liturgies. “We had to have a two-minute by two-minute scenario of what would be happening,” said Archbishop Aquila, “and who would be near the Holy Father.”
The new evangelization
Denver’s hugely successful event—it made local, national and world news and set the norm for subsequent World Youth Days—helped solidify the importance of the international celebrations as a tremendous tool of the “new evangelization,” whereby as John Paul II declared, the Gospel is shared through “new methods, new ardor and new expression.”
“World Youth Day really gives witness to Christ in the city in which you’re in and also the country in which you’re in, and it flows over,” Archbishop Aquila said. “When Christ is the center and is truly the vine, and we’re attached to that vine, it’s going to bear much fruit.”
Denver’s WYD was the first, and remains the only, international WYD to be held in the United States. It was also the first international WYD to be held in a largely secular city, rather than a traditional Catholic one as were previous hosts: Buenos Aires, Santiago de Compostela and Czestochowa.
“Denver was chosen in part because it was a new, secular, modern metropolis,” Msgr. Buelt said. “Pilgrimages in the Church had traditionally been to places where God had shown himself in the past to have done marvelous things for his people…. John Paul II changed the equation; he said pilgrimage isn’t simply to a place where God has shown marvelous deeds in the past, but where we pray and anticipate and hope and prophesy that he will show marvelous deeds in the future.”
If the first fruit of WYD ’93 was bringing peace to a fear-ridden city through the Christian witness of the pilgrims, the second was a renewal of faith that manifested itself in increased vocations to holy orders and consecrated life, and that led to vibrant apostolates and movements promoting the new evangelization.
“You can recognize the tremendous fruit (WYD ’93) has borne in the Archdiocese of Denver in the vocations we have and the establishment of the seminaries, Redemptoris Mater and St. John Vianney, and the various apostolates that sprang out of it,” Archbishop Aquila said. “Prior to (WYD ’93) both seminaries did not exist, the Augustine Institute didn’t exist, FOCUS (campus ministry) didn’t exist.”
The young people took to heart and enthusiastically responded to the Gospel exhortation John Paul II proclaimed at the Aug. 15 Mass at Cherry Creek State Park: “Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into the public places, like the first Apostles who preached Christ and the Good News of salvation…. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.”
“Whether it be proclaiming Christ on college campuses, or among the homeless or to those on the peripheries,” Archbishop Aquila said, “or even with the movements, the Neocatechumenal Way or Communion and Liberation and other groups that are here…they continue to flourish and to bear fruit within this local Church.”
Father Joseph Cao, who arrived in Denver at age 10 as a boat person after the end of the Vietnam War, was 27 and had just been accepted as a seminarian for the Denver Archdiocese when he attended a WYD ’93 gathering for some 15,000 Vietnamese Catholics with Pope John Paul II. The pope met with the Vietnamese exiles the afternoon of Aug. 15 at McNichols Sports Arena to encourage them in their faith.
“That meeting changed my whole life,” Father Cao said. “I was able to be so near to Pope John Paul II, just 15 to 30 yards away. I felt his holiness. I saw myself one day being a priest for Jesus Christ. I felt that God was confirming my call.”
Father Cao was ordained to the priesthood seven years later and serves as a parish pastor. He is among several priests in the archdiocese, native and foreign born, whose vocational call was received, seeded or confirmed at WYD ’93.
Milwaukee, Wis., native Sister Elizabeth Ann, S.V., was a 29-year-old graphic designer who happened to be home recovering from a car accident when she turned on the TV and delightedly began watching EWTN’s live broadcast of WYD ’93.
“I was utterly glued to the scene of 500,000 young people with the Holy Father in the Rocky Mountains proclaiming to the world that Christ was the center of their existence,” she wrote in her vocation story. “I prayed and sang with them. I laughed, I cried, I was moved by their boldness and courage and joy. … I had been deeply touched by the Lord’s love and I knew that I was changed forever.”
She entered the New York based Sisters of Life three years later. “The only way I can describe the life-changing experience is to call it a grace that traveled with the speed of light through the TV set…piercing my heart.”
Of the many vocations to consecrated life connected to WYD ’93, the Sisters of Life alone have a handful.
Terry Polakovic, co-founder of Endow, which promotes the new feminism of St. John Paul II through study groups, became an admirer of the pontiff when she housed four students from France for Denver’s WYD. Eager to share the pope’s teachings on the dignity and vocation of women that she discovered shortly after WYD ’93 through her friend Marilyn Coors, the two along with friend Betsy Considine, launched Endow in 2003. Today, the apostolate is international.
“The thing that always strikes me about Endow is the thousands of women whose lives have been changed, and their families have been changed,” Polakovic said. “It’s just made a huge impact.”
Tim Gray’s experience at Denver’s WYD led him to eventually move to Denver to fulfill his desire to co-found the Augustine Institute, a Catholic graduate school to form lay leaders for the new evangelization. It opened in 2005.
“Seeing the youth come alive and wanting to grow in their faith through that encounter here at World Youth Day with John Paul II … laid the foundation and planted the seeds for what would develop into the Augustine Institute,” Gray said.
Today, the Augustine Institute has the largest Catholic master’s degree program in the nation. Its digital platforms, including the Catholic streaming service FORMED, have over 1.2 million subscribers.
At WYD ’93, Gray introduced then-Bishop Chaput to his friend Curtis Martin, who would start the campus ministry organization FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students). When Archbishop Chaput was installed in Denver, he invited Martin to move FOCUS’ headquarters to Denver. The ministry has evangelized tens of thousands of young people across the nation and internationally.
“The effect of World Youth Day is something that grew by grace in the hearts of those who experienced it,” Gray said. “It literally lives on, not just in our memory but by the fruit of the grace planted in people during that event.”
Light from the West
So what did Pope John Paul II mean in October 1993 when he saw Archbishop Stafford in Rome and described Denver’s WYD as “a revolution”?
“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,” Cardinal Stafford explained in 2013. “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.”