Denver media remembers ‘rockstar’ pope

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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”