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: Art: A needed sacrament of faith

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A sacrament is an outward, material sign of an inward, spiritual reality. The seven sacraments are signs instituted by Jesus to communicate his grace to us. In addition, we have sacramentals, signs and practices that draw us more deeply into our faith. We do not have an abstract faith; it is sacramental and incarnational, centered on the coming into the flesh of the Son of God and his continued presence in the Church through the Eucharist.
Art, following this sacramental identity, expresses our faith, draws us into prayer, and mediates divine realities. In a time of relativism, which shuns proposals of truth and goodness, we need to rely more upon the witness of beauty. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of this opportunity and need: “I have often affirmed my conviction that the true apology of Christian faith, the most convincing demonstration of its truth against every denial, are the saints, and the beauty that the faith has generated. Today, for faith to grow, we must lead ourselves and the persons we meet to encounter the saints and to enter into contact with the Beautiful.”

Does this approach actually work for evangelization? Elizabeth Lev details one example, the crucial role of art at a time of crisis in the Church, in her book, How Catholic Art Saved the Faith: The Triumph of Beauty and Truth in Counter-Reformation Art (Sophia, 2018). As core Catholic doctrines faced opposition from Protestants, the Council of Trent called for the creation of art to assist in renewal. The Council said that art should instruct, help to remember and meditate divine realities, admonish, provide examples, and to inspire the faithful to order their lives in imitation of the saints (4). Lev adds her own synthesis of how art assists the Church, asserting that “art is useful in evangelization…. can bring clarity…. [and] is uplifting” (6). The Catholic Reformation and Baroque periods, particularly in central Italy, were ages “of unprecedented art patronage from the top down, effectively a very expensive PR campaign meant to awaken the hearts and minds of millions of pilgrims who were making their way to the Eternal City” (5).

And it worked. It was not art for art’s sake that led Catholics to stay true to the faith, but art’s ability to express the deep spiritual vision of the Church as articulated by the great Catholic reformers. Lev lists the main protagonists of this cooperative work:  “The spiritual insight of Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, Federico Borromeo, St. Philip Neri, and Paleotti fused with the creative talents of Caravaggio, Barocci, the Carracci School, Lavinia Fontana, and Guido Reni, making for a heady cocktail designed to entice the faithful into experiencing mystery” (16). Lev provides a masterful overview of the key theological issues at stake and how artists were commissioned to visualize the faith in these areas, including the sacraments, mediation of the saints, purgatory, and practices such as pilgrimage.

Developments in technique enabled art to come alive, actively mediating faith, by using theatrical characteristics that invited the viewer into the drama of the scene. Altar pieces beckoned down to the action of the altar, pointing to the reality occurring there, such as Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ (37), and others drew the viewer into the scene, as with Frederico Barocci’s extended hand of St. Francis bearing the stigmata, inviting an imitation of Christ (145). Other paintings inspired religious sentiments such as contrition, as found in Reni’s St. Peter Penitent, who models how to weep for one’s sins and to beat one’s chest in repentance (45), and Titian’s good thief who reaches out to Christ as one would do in confession (52). The book beautifully presents the artwork, and Lev seamlessly combines art criticism and religious commentary.

The time period of Lev’s book bears some striking similarities to contemporary struggles. Many Catholics continue to question the faith, and we have experienced a return to iconoclasm in the last fifty years, bent on the destruction of the Church’s sacramental vision. We, too, need the inspiration of art, which calls us to renew our faith: “Art no longer allow[s] the viewer to stand at a safe distance, as a passive recipient of grace, but exhort[s] everyone to act” (180). For the success of the New Evangelization, we need a return to beauty. This will require us to invest in a renaissance of the arts, knowing that this investment will support the Church’s efforts to communicate the truth of our faith, for the salvation of souls.