Pope unlocks youths’ hearts to vocations

20 years after World Youth Day, clergy and religious reflect on Christ’s call

This story continues a Denver Catholic Register series celebrating 20 years of faith since the Denver Archdiocese hosted World Youth Day Aug. 11-15, 1993.

It was once a custom to give a visiting dignitary a key to the city. In 1993, Pope John Paul II received a key, but he didn’t need it. The entire city was at his feet during World Youth Day, including the many young men and women touched by his words and moved to devote their lives to the Church.

“Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first apostles who preached Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns and villages,” the late pope told the estimated 500,000 global jamboree at Cherry Creek State Park.

“This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel,” he said. “It is the time to preach it from the rooftops. Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern metropolis.”

His words that blistering day, Aug. 15, 1993, to the throngs spread before him pierced hearts tepid in faith and minds uncertain of following Christ.

Movements in the heart

Father Félix Medina, pastor of Queen of Peace Parish in Aurora, remembers it well.

“It touched me because I really was ashamed, and I was really afraid and was hiding what God did for me,” he said, reflecting on the pope’s homily.

A little whisper opened his 19-year-old heart to a priestly vocation.

“It was at that moment that I began to think that God was calling me to something more,” he said. “I would say it was a decisive factor in my priesthood.”

Cara Rhyne, a Colorado native and member of the Marian Community of Reconciliation, a community of lay consecrated women, heard the same message.

“I think the Lord was calling me to take more seriously my faith,” she said from her community in Denver. “It was at World Youth Day when there was a moment that I realized the faith was my own and I belonged to this Church, a Church that invited me to go out and share that gift of faith with others.

“From that point on there was nothing to stop me from doing what God asked me.”

She responded to God’s call and became a fraterna.

The World Youth Day held 20 years ago in Denver from Aug. 11 to 15 was the first in North America and drew a half-million people from 70 countries to attend a series of ceremonies, catechesis, fellowship, liturgies and Masses.

The tradition began under Blessed John Paul II in 1984 when he invited youths to join him on Palm Sunday in St. Peter’s Square. Some 300,000 responded, and a year later it was dubbed World Youth Day.

Signs from heaven

In Denver, the sheer magnitude of pilgrims gathered and the universality of the Church moved some from feeling isolated to part of one body in Christ.

From rural Maine, Sister Maria Louise Concepta of the Sisters of Life, then 17, recalls the pope flying in on a helicopter and landing in the former Mile High Stadium in Denver.

Everyone was cheering.

“For me it was a jaw-dropping experience,” she said from her community in New York. “The whole spirit of it—everyone was so thrilled to be Catholic and see the pope.”

As he landed, two vibrant rainbows painted the sky overhead.

It was like a sign from heaven, said Sister Maria Kateri de Francisco, also of the Sisters of Life in Toronto.

“It was dramatic,” she said.

Youths sang praise and worship songs like “God is Truly Amazing” and drummed “Rhythm of the World” before the pope traveled the stadium in a white four-wheel drive pick-up.

Traveling from Philadelphia to pray and worship with thousands of faithful youths at 29-years-old was “such a boost to my faith. I remember that being so striking,” Sister Kateri said.

It was in Denver she told others of her vocation.

“Before that I sensed a call, but it remained in my heart,” she said. “In no way had I spoken about it to anyone else. It was in Denver I had the courage.”

As a delegate in the International Youth Forum, she sat front row at the stadium—where she met her future community’s founder—and at the bishop’s Mass held the next day at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Denver.

A chance meeting with Blessed John Paul II was life-changing.

After Mass, she waited in line with fellow delegates to meet the pope in the sanctuary. Sister Kateri carried a T-shirt with his image to present to him and she practiced in Polish the words “God bless you.”

Once she said it to him, the pope asked if her family was from Poland.

“I was so taken aback. I became speechless. I shook my head ‘no’ and I couldn’t even remember English, my first language, but only Italian, the language of my grandparents.”

She then said in Italian, “I love you very much.” Unsure of what to do next, she recalled how St. John the Evangelist laid his head on Christ’s chest.

She said she thought, “If I was meeting Jesus right now, what would I want to do?

“I actually laid the left side of my head and face against his chest, and he gave me the hugest hug,” she said. “Inside I thought, ‘I’m not moving from here.’”

Time seemed to pass and the pope tapped on her shoulder to rise and he took her head into his hands and kissed her forehead.

“I only found out later because my photo turned out on the cover of Liguorian Magazine’s January 1994 issue,” she said.

Strengthened in witness

Pilgrims spent the remaining days in the Stations of the Cross, a walking pilgrimage across Denver to Cherry Creek State Park and an all-night vigil and Mass celebrated by the pope.

Father Giovanni Capucci, judicial vicar for the Denver Archdiocese’s Metropolitan Tribunal, attended with fellow parishioners from Italy.

The pope’s homily at the Mass that Sunday struck him.

“There was a moment in the homily in which the pope was urging us to evangelization,” he recalled. “I remember that in that moment I felt strongly his call to answer this invitation.”

At 19, he felt the necessity to show gratitude to God for blessings in his life.

The following day, he stood up during a vocational call at a Neocatechumenal Way gathering—a Vatican-approved catechumenate—which is a formal way to show he felt God was calling him to be a missionary priest. Father Medina also stood.

Father Capucci later returned to Denver and was part of the first class to enter the new Redemptoris Mater Archdiocesan Missionary Seminary.

He’s continued to attend every pilgrimage and takes youths there because, “I firmly believe the Holy Spirit works strongly in these World Youth Days to help youth find their vocation.”

COMING UP: Moral courage and the many cultures of death

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CRACOW. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been two years since I was last in Cracow, where for three decades I’ve done extensive research and taught great students while forming friendships with many remarkable people. It was wonderful to be back in one of the world’s greatest cities, and soon after I arrived in late June, I took a long walk to see what had changed. The first major difference I noticed was that the plaza in front of the central railway station (named for my late friend Jan Nowak-Jeziorański, a World War II courier for the Polish Home Army and the man from whom the future John Paul II got real news via Radio Free Europe’s Polish service) has a new, strikingly modern memorial, dedicated to the memory of Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

That name is not well-known throughout a western world that has largely forgotten the meaning and lessons of the Cold War. But if Jan Nowak-Jeziorański was right when he spoke about the Polish colonel in the mid-1990s, Ryszard Kuklinski was a genuine hero of the long, twilight struggle against communist totalitarianism — the man who helped prevent a bloody Soviet invasion of Poland to crush the nascent Solidarity movement.

An accomplished officer in the communist-era Polish Army, Ryszard Kukliński began to doubt the truth of what he had been told about the West when, as a member of an international commission, he met American military men in Vietnam in the mid-1960s. His doubts about communism and its purposes intensified by orders of magnitude in 1968, when the brutal Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia ground the Prague Spring to dust under the treads of Soviet tanks, and in 1970, when the Polish army shot Polish workers during labor strife. Privy to some of the Warsaw Pact’s most confidential strategic plans, he became convinced that, if the Cold War turned hot and the east bloc attacked the West, the Soviets would sacrifice Poland as retaliatory western tactical nuclear strikes hit the second wave of Warsaw Pact troops pushing west. So, in 1972, Kukliński, risking his life and his family’s safety, offered his services to the United States and for the next nine years was the West’s most important intelligence asset behind the iron curtain.

His greatest service to Poland and the cause of freedom came in the later months of 1980. Thanks to his efforts, the United States knew the entire order-of-battle the Soviet Union had organized to stamp out Solidarity, which had held its first formal congress in September 1980. With that information, and working in concert with the incoming Reagan administration, outgoing national security adviser Zbigniew Brzeziński, with the help of the AFL-CIO’s Lane Kirkland, was able to organize a comprehensive western response to a potential Soviet invasion of Poland: an international economic blockade that would have severely damaged the already-staggering Soviet economy. Faced with economic ruin, the Soviet leadership backed down and the Warsaw Pact divisions that had surrounded Poland withdrew.

Colonel Kukliński and his family were exfiltrated to the West; two of his sons later died under dubious circumstances that may have involved Russian retribution, and Kukliński lived out his life under an assumed name in the United States, dying in 2004. There was public controversy when he returned to his native Poland for a 1998 visit, with some charging that he had violated his officer’s oath by working for American intelligence for a decade. John Paul II, through various intermediaries, quietly passed the word that Kukliński was to be regarded in Poland as a national hero. Zbigniew Brzeziński, who held the exact same view, put it brilliantly, in a comment that appears on the Kukliński Memorial in Cracow: Colonel Kukliński was “the first Polish officer in NATO.” 

Communism was a distinctive form of the culture of death, for the effort to create “Homo Sovieticus” was a lethal assault on souls. Colonel Ryszard Kukliński took a courageous stand against that particular culture of death, knowing as he did that freedom is never cost-free: freedom lived nobly always requires sacrifice. His example should be pondered by Catholic citizens and Catholic public officials throughout the West today, who are called to resist, with similar moral courage and effect, that form of the culture of death that masquerades as the ideology of “choice.” May we and our elected officials be as principled and brave as the Polish officer who took what John Paul II described at the United Nations in 1995 as the “the risk of freedom.”