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 Baby University prepares parents for the real deal

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Heidi and Jim Knous had no idea that something like a Catholic childbirth education existed. But not long after finding out the great news that they were expecting their first child, Brady, they came across an article in the Denver Catholic introducing Catholic Baby University — a program designed to teach expecting parents the nuts and bolts of both childbirth and Catholicism.

“I think it’s special because it gives you an opportunity to step back from all the registries and baby shower… and to really take time to come together as a couple to think about this vocation, what parenthood is … and how you want that to look for your family,” Heidi said.

“I think there’s a lot of distractions when you’re about to have a child,” Jim added. “Everybody knows it’s going to be tough and you’re going through a lot. Everybody’s trying to tell you, ‘You should do this, you should do that.’ But Catholic Baby U really gives you a solid understanding of what having a child is going to be like and includes the values that we learned as a family in raising a baby in the Catholic faith.”

Jim and Heidi Knous and their son Brady, are parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver. (Photo provided)

 

The Catholic Baby University holistic program for parents — offered both as a weekend retreat or a six-class series — is the result of the partnership between Rose Medical Center and the Archdiocese of Denver and was inspired by the previously-founded Jewish Baby University.

The classes touch on topics dealing with childbirth instruction, postpartum experience, baby safety and the Catholic faith — and they are taught and facilitated by certified birth and safety instructors, mental health professionals, and members from the Office of Evangelization and Family Ministry of the Archdiocese of Denver.

“Statistically, people become more religiously involved when they have children, so we want to respond to people’s desires to reengage their faith with the coming of their child,” said Scott Elmer, Director of the Office of Evangelization and Family Life Ministries of the Archdiocese of Denver and also a facilitator of the program, in a previous interview. “We want to be there to welcome them, celebrate the new life, and give them the tools they need to incorporate God into their home life.”

For Jim and Heidi, who are parishioners at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish, the experience of having both the childbirth and Catholic aspects in this preparation did not disappoint, as they learned from each one.

“It was a great opportunity to come back and think about things from a basic level again and how to bring our child into the faith — things that you haven’t necessarily thought of or how you would teach a child something, [like praying],” Heidi said.

“Something we learned [that really made me reflect] was that the bond between me and Brady and between Heidi and Brady are very different. It happens at very different times,” Jim shared. “Right away when Heidi finds out she’s pregnant, then her bonding with Brady already starts all the way until Brady’s born. As a dad, it doesn’t start until he is born and I’m actually holding him.”

Heidi assured the concept of “gatekeeping” also helped them prepare for parenting better.

“[Gatekeeping] is when, as a mom, you get really wrapped up in, ‘Only I know how to change baby diapers, only I know how to feed the baby, only I know how to do this,’” Heidi explained. “And I am someone who I could’ve seen thinking that I could be the only person that knew how to take care of [my child]. But gaining that understanding helped us co-parent a lot easier from the very beginning because I was aware of it.”

“I would tell [expecting couples] that Catholic Baby University is a great place to start, to gain community, to meet other people that are in a similar place that you are in; having people in the same room who are just as excited, just as terrified who also want to learn,” Heidi concluded. “It’s just a really awesome opportunity to take advantage of.”