Denver media remembers ‘rockstar’ pope

Mark Haas

Mike Landess and Gary Shapiro went to Rome to interview Pope John Paul II. Kathy Walsh was at the airport when the pope arrived in Denver. Jim Benemann remembers President Clinton greeting JPII at Regis University.

Members of the Denver media who covered World Youth Day 1993 all had different experiences and all shared different memories with the Denver Catholic, but they all seemed to agree on one thing about Pope John Paul II.

“The guy was a Rockstar,” said Shapiro, a news anchor at 9News (KUSA).

“It was like Rockstar status,” said Benemann, a news anchor at CBS4 (KCNC).

“Rockstar status,” said Anne Trujillo, a news anchor at ABC7 (KMGH). “Especially when you see young people that excited and that willing to travel hundreds, or even thousands of miles to see one man.”

Twenty-five years later, the “Rockstar” is now a saint, and World Youth Day 1993 is still remembered as one of the biggest news stories in Denver history.

From Denver to Rome

Denver television stations started planning their coverage months, even a year in advance, and for 9News that included sending a crew to the Vatican for Holy Week in April of 1993 to do preview stories of the pope’s visit.

“We had an audience with the pope, and we had a crystal mountain that we gave him, and we said, ‘We are looking forward to having you in Denver,’” said Mike Landess, who now works at Fox 31/KWGN Channel 2.

“We did tons of stories for a [TV] special and the culmination was we got to interview Pope John Paul II,” said Shapiro. “It was really cool, it was the highlight of my career, it really was.”

Landess and Shapiro both said that on this trip they witnessed up-close why this pope was so popular.

The guy was a Rockstar.”

“He just was such a person of the people and engaged with them and even with the kids that had different points of view [on social issues], you could see that he loved them, and they loved him,” said Landess. “It was an amazing thing to see, it really was.”

Shapiro added: “We interviewed one of the public relations people at the Vatican and she told us, ‘Watch this pope during Mass, because thousands of people are out there, and every one of them thinks that he is looking at them.’ And he was like that! He just had that connection even in a huge crowd.”

Local logistics

In the past two decades, Denver has hosted the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the city has celebrated three Super Bowl wins by the Denver Broncos and two Stanley Cup titles by the Colorado Avalanche, but things were a bit different back in 1993.

“We were still kind of just the little town on the plains to a lot of people, just this western outpost,” said Benemann. “So, we knew leading up to it this was such a huge deal, and it really did end up putting us on the map.”

The local TV stations had live coverage of every major event during the week, each one memorable in its own way.

It was really cool, it was the highlight of my career, it really was.”

“I remember [the pope] entering Mile High Stadium in the “pope mobile” but then also shaking hands with so many young people,” said Walsh, a news anchor at CBS4. “The cheers were louder than any Broncos game.”

And when Pope John Paul II went up to the mountains to visit Camp St. Malo, the media went as well.

“Ed Sardella was doing a live shot in front of St. Malo and the Pope came out and just wandered away from his security and started shaking hands with all the people that were out there, and then he wandered right into our live shot and Ed Sardella talked to him live on TV!” said Shapiro. “It was totally unplanned, but that’s just the way this pope kind of was.”

There were also unique experiences behind the scenes. Shapiro recalled sleeping at his station in a sleeping bag, so he’d be ready to go every morning for the next event. Trujillo said ABC7 rented a house at Cherry Creek State Park to avoid the traffic, and Walsh hosted a CBS4 crew at her own house near the park for the same reason.

The cheers were louder than any Broncos game.”

“Thousands of pilgrims walked by [our house] on their way to spend the night in the park. I remember how they sang and laughed,” said Walsh.  “As I look back, what strikes me most is it was a kinder, gentler time. I heard countless languages, but I never heard a harsh word. Those young people were packed into the park, but they were thrilled to be there.”

Pope in the park

The week, and the coverage, culminated with the Mass at Cherry Creek State Park.

“Just remarkable to see that many people come together in spirit and in prayer, and people of all different denominations – that was really exciting,” said Benemann. “Really no matter what your faith community, it seemed like just about everybody in town was extremely excited to have the pope here.”

With estimates of 750,000 people in attendance, it is still to this day possibly the largest gathering of people in state history.

“It was such a melding of humanity in a way in which violence and upset and discord and all that seemed to be set aside,” said Landess. “It was a fabulous event for Denver and a fabulous event for the world to see.”

And even though the anchors and reporters were working, they said they still felt a part of the life-changing week.

It was such a melding of humanity in a way in which violence and upset and discord and all that seemed to be set aside.”

“No matter who you believe or what your religious beliefs are, I think when you see one man draw a crowd bigger than anything that’s ever been done in Colorado, I would hope that our community would have stepped back and said there is something powerful happening in Denver, Colorado, right now and it’s all good,” said Trujillo.

“I think it is always easiest to look at the last big thing and say, ‘That was the biggest ever,’ but I certainly can’t remember anything as big as World Youth Day,” said Benemann. “We have had sports championships, and conventions but for me that will always be the most significant event I will have covered in my career as a reporter.”

COMING UP: Nothing about us without us

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The slogan “Nothing about us without us” was used by Solidarity in the 1980s in Poland, borrowing a royal motto from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the mid-second millennium. Then, it was expressed in Latin: Nihil de nobis sine nobis. Later, it appeared in Polish on the banners of 19th-century Poles fighting their country’s partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria: Nic o Nas bez Nas. Today, it’s often used by disability activists asserting their claim to be fully participant in society.

“Nothing about us without us” also applies to the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon Region, which will meet in Rome in October.

That Synod will involve seven bishops’ conferences from nine Latin American countries who will consider their pastoral situation under the theme, “Amazonia: new paths for the Church and for an integral ecology.” As is usually the case in these meetings, the bishops at the Synod will work with materials drafted in Rome. Early indicators from the Synod’s preparatory document suggest that the Amazonian Synod will be longer on environmentalism than on theology. International media attention will doubtless focus on the Synod’s discussion of climate change and its relationship to Amazonian deforestation.

Recent synodal history suggests, however, that more will be afoot at the Amazonian Synod than what its announced theme suggests.

The 2014 and 2015 Synods were called to consider the crisis of marriage and the family throughout the world. Yet they became the occasion for powerful churchmen to try to deconstruct Catholic moral theology and sacramental discipline, according to the tried-and-failed theologies and pastoral practices of the 1970s. The 2018 Synod, summoned to discuss youth ministry and vocational discernment, began with an effort by the Synod general secretariat to enshrine the world’s language of sexual plasticity (and the lame understandings of happiness that underwrite that language) into an official Church document. When that failed, Synod-2018 became the occasion for the Synod general secretariat to promote an ill-defined notion of “synodality” that struck more than a few bishops present as a prescription for local-option, choose-your-own-doctrine Catholicism on the model of the (imploding) Anglican Communion.

This pattern seems likely to continue at the Amazonian Synod. There, the deeper agenda will be the ordination of mature married men — viri probati — to the priesthood. Proponents will argue that this dramatic change in the Church’s longstanding tradition of a celibate priesthood (which, contrary to much misinformation, antedates the early Middle Ages by hundreds of years) is necessary because Amazonia is a Catholic area deprived of the Eucharist by a lack of priests. One hopes that the counterclaims — that Amazonia is mission territory requiring wholesale evangelization, and that Amazonia’s lack of priests reflects racial and class divisions in Latin American Catholicism that discourage priests of European pedigree from working with indigenous peoples — get a serious hearing.

Proponents of ordaining viri probati in Amazonia, including retired Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, OFM, have insisted that any such concession there would have no implications for the universal Church. That cannot be, however. Should the Amazonian Synod request the Pope to grant a dispensation from the discipline of celibacy for that region, and should he grant it, it will be just a matter of time before bishops conferences elsewhere — Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria come immediately to mind — make similar requests, citing pressing pastoral needs. On what ground would those requests be denied?

In a year-end interview with Vatican News, the Synod’s general secretary, Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, insisted that the Amazonian Synod would not discuss environmental issues only, but would also confront “ecclesial themes” — and would do so in a way that Amazonia could be “a model for the whole world.”

We can be grateful to the cardinal for his candor in, however unintentionally, letting the celibacy cat out of the synodal bag. Any decision to ordain viri probati in Amazonia would inevitably have major consequences for the entire Church. A decision of this magnitude cannot be taken by an unrepresentative segment of the Church and then turned into a “model” for everyone else.

That is why the principle of “Nothing about us without us” must apply here. Whatever else “synodality” may mean, it surely must mean that decisions bearing on everyone should involve as broad a consultation and as global a reflection as possible. Bishops who agree should make their concerns known now, not after the Amazonian synod meets.

Featured image by Vatican Media | CNA