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: Catholic schools plan to reopen for in-school learning this fall

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Having endured a rather challenging last few months of the school year, parents of Catholic school students can now rest easy with the knowledge that Catholic schools will be open this fall.

In a letter issued May 29, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila and Denver Catholic Schools Superintendent Elias Moo announced plans to reopen Catholic schools for in-school learning for the 2020-21 school year. At the forefront of these plans is the health and safety of students and faculty.

“We will carry out in-person instruction with increased health protocols and processes to ensure that our schools are going above and beyond to protect the health of every member of our Catholic school community, especially our most high-risk members,” said Archbishop Aquila and Moo in their letter. “We are confident our schools’ protocols and processes will keep our school environments as healthy and as safe as possible for all members of our communities.”

To help ensure healthy school environments are maintained, a task force composed of school leaders, nurse practitioners, doctors and a virologist has been assembled. This group is working with schools to identify the best health measures and policies in preparation for the coming school year.

For those parents who may not feel comfortable sending their children to school for any in-school learning, the archdiocese and Office of Catholic Schools are also formulating a virtual distance-learning option. Families who are interested will still be able to receive instruction in core content areas while remaining connected to their local school community. More details on this option will be available at the end of June.

Recognizing the unique challenges parents have faced over these past few months as schools have been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Archbishop Aquila and Moo expressed sincere gratitude for their increased efforts in making distance learning a success.

“None of this would have been possible without the incredible efforts made by our parents to play an even bigger role in their children’s education,” they said. “While balancing your own work, caring for your families and other day-to-day responsibilities, you have stepped up to make sure we had a productive finish to the school year.”

Given the fluidity of the COVID-19 pandemic, Archbishop Aquila and Moo said that Catholic schools will continue to abide by mandated health protocols while working to keep Catholic schools operating for the good of the communities they serve.

“Our Catholic schools are a critical part of the educational ecosystem and fabric of our state, and we remain committed to working in a spirit of cooperation with our local and state officials when possible as we all seek to advance the common good of our communities,” they concluded.

As plans for reopening Denver’s Catholic schools are continually developed, parents are invited to participate in a survey to help school leadership consider the needs of the community so they can open schools in the safest possible manner. The survey can be accessed by visiting denvercatholicschools.com.