Religious vocations just one fruit among many sowed at WYD ‘93

Among the many fruits of WYD Denver ’93, priestly and religious vocations abounded. Whether it was hearing the words of Saint John Paul II or witnessing the overwhelming catholicity of the Church, many chose to follow Christ in a radical way. Here are just four testimonies of priests and religious that attended the event and were deeply influenced by it.

Father Tobias Rodriguez-Lasa, Rector of Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Denver

DENVER, CO – AUGUST 31: The Very Rev. Tobias Rodriguez-Lasa poses for a portrait at the Archdiocese of Denver on August 31, 2016, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Daniel Petty/A&D Photography)

With a good job, money, vacations, girlfriend and a brand-new (red) sports car at age 29, young Tobias was not interested in the priesthood. He’d been to other WYD’s from his native country of Spain and didn’t feel like going to the one in Denver. Two things changed his mind: a good number of people from his parish were going and he felt empty. “By WYD ’93, I had everything society says you need to have a fulfilled life… but I was in a personal crisis, with a deep feeling that something had to change,” Father Tobias recalled.

Without knowing, God was already stirring something in his heart. “To my surprise, God was waiting for me here, and he called loud and clear… I thought it was crazy… getting myself into the discipline of seminary life was not precisely what I was looking for in life… But I could not deny the fact of the call,” he said. He believes, however, that God had originally called him to the priesthood in his high school years, but as he confessed, he “pushed it back into the very back burner.” His college friends even called him “the priest.”

After WYD ’93, he entered the seminary. “I entered with the wrong disposition, just to prove to myself and to God this was not the way,” Father Tobias recounted. Yet, to his surprise, he liked it so much that he lived his first two years of seminary life as in a “vacation camp.”

To my surprise, God was waiting for me here, and he called loud and clear…”

“I have been a priest for 16 years now, and I am amazed at the happiness, the fulfillment, the inner serenity and peace the paternity of God is giving me in this service,” he said. “I would recommend it to anyone, anyone whom God calls — even if you think, like I did, this is not what you want to do with your life.”

Father Randy Dollins, Vicar General and Moderator of the Curia

As a high schooler at Queen of Peace Parish, Father Dollins would receive more than he thought at WYD ’93 — so much that it would later lead him to find his vocation as a priest. The event turned out to be a big eye-opener for him and led him to be more open about his Catholic faith.

His first amazement was to encounter the universality of the Church: “I’d never conceived that the Church was as big as it was. I went to Queen of Peace but at WYD these people were from everywhere. That blew my mind,” he said.

His second surprise was key for his vocation, and that was realizing it was “cool” to be a priest. “The atmosphere was so positive for the pope and for priests that you could step out of what society was thinking and think, ‘it would be good to be a priest. It would be supported by people,’ because priests are kind of celebrities at WYD. That expanded into thinking that being a Catholic was actually cool,” he recalled.

The seed that was planted would bear its fruit after WYD ’97 in Paris, to which he took a group of young men and women, so they could experience what he experienced. There, he met Archbishop Chaput, who talked to him about the priesthood and entering the seminary.

His most vivid memory is being amazed at the figure of the pope. “I didn’t know the pope was that big of a deal. I knew the pope was the head of the church but at WYD people were going absolutely nuts for him. So, I was just saying, ‘I think I missed something.’ I remember sitting there and thinking, ‘being Catholic is a lot more than I thought.’

The atmosphere was so positive for the pope and for priests that you could step out of what society was thinking and think, ‘it would be good to be a priest.”

“But when the pope came in and I saw his charisma I said, ‘I understand why this guy is such a big deal.’ I was witnessing the appearance of a living saint, so you’re confused when you don’t know how to categorize it,” Father Dollins concluded.

Sister Mary Concepta, Local Superior of the Sisters of Life in Denver

Sister Mary Concepta was deeply inspired by World Youth Day 1993, and it played a major role in her call to religious life.

Growing up as a Catholic in Maine was not easy for Sister Mary Concepta. Witnessing only her family practice the faith among friends and acquaintances made Catholicism seem lonely. That idea changed radically when she attended WYD ’93 as a high school student, which set her on a journey that would lead her to the religious life.

“I grew up in a very rural community with not many Catholics, so I was completely astounded by how many young Catholics there were [at WYD] that really desired to learn and live their faith,” she said. “Being present at all these events… made a tremendous impact on me, knowing that I was not alone in desiring to live my faith, even though I had felt that way my entire life.”

Other than feeling like a survivor after arriving at Cherry Creek Park in the heat and altitude, she remembers vividly being in adoration with the Holy Father and the impression his words had on her.

“What made the biggest impact was that he was encouraging us to be bold in this culture that wants to deny and minimize faith, to not be afraid because we’re surrounded by so many young Catholics that desired the same thing, to be authentic disciples of Christ,” she recalled.

Attending WYD ’93 had much to do with discovering her vocation. During the WYD activities, her group went to an “excellent” catechism animated by Franciscan University of Steubenville. After meeting students and former students of the college, she made the decision to apply to the school. It was as a student at Franciscan that she met the Sisters of Life.

I was completely astounded by how many young Catholics there were [at WYD] that really desired to learn and live their faith. . .”

“The ministry we’re now doing in Denver is all about spreading the Gospel of life, the beautiful plan that God has for each person,” Sister Concepta said. “The overflow of the Holy Father calling me to the greatness of discipleship at WYD [is now present in] being able to plan that seed in the heart of young people in college campuses and call them to the joy of the Gospel.”

Father Felix Medina, pastor Queen of Peace Parish

Father Felix Medina had a dream of becoming a scientist before Pope John Paul II’s words at World Youth Day 1993 opened his mind to a different calling.

He had a dream of becoming a scientist until he heard Jesus speak to him in the words of Saint John Paul II at WYD ’93. He then realized his aspiration was small compared to the mission Jesus had for him. When he was a college student, Father Felix Medina was excited about attending WYD in Denver from Spain, with his youth community of the Neocatecumenal Way. He remembers the pope’s homily at Cherry Creek Park, which changes his life.

“I saw that he was talking to me. Something was touching me personally because of all the fears that I had of giving testimony, of going out of my comfort zone,” he said. “I had my plans, I was studying mathematics at the University of Salamanca and wanted to be a scientist, but John Paul II was saying that life was under attack, that there was battle of life and death and that the Lord was calling us to not be afraid.”

It is then that he heard God’s voice. “In that homily, I heard for the first time in my life that God was calling me in a personal way, that he was telling me, ‘Be not afraid. It’s not the time to be ashamed of the Gospel,’” he recalled. “And I saw that this was a calling for me and that I couldn’t live with this fear of giving my life to God, with the fear of being like the apostles and share with other what God had given me.”

In that homily, I heard for the first time in my life that God was calling me in a personal way. . .”

He was later chosen to go to the Redemptoris Mater Seminary in Denver without knowing it and was ordained a priest in 2004. “Out of all the places where I could have been sent, now I am five minutes away from Cherry Creek. I remember that experience every time I pass by there,” he said. “It’s a passionate adventure to be a pastor.”

COMING UP: Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

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Seeking justice, transparency and accountability, archdiocese voluntarily enters agreement with Colorado attorney general

Initiatives include independent investigation and independent reparations program

Mark Haas

With a desire to “shine the bright light of transparency” on the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors within the Church, Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila has announced that the three Colorado dioceses have voluntarily partnered with Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children.

In a joint news conference on February 19 at the attorney general’s office, it was also announced that the three dioceses will voluntarily fund an independent reparations program for survivors of such abuse.

“The damage inflicted upon young people and their families by sexual abuse, especially when it’s committed by a trusted person like a priest, is profound,” said Archbishop Aquila. “While this process will certainly include painful moments and cannot ever fully restore what was lost, we pray that it will at least begin the healing process.”

It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Discussions for these two initiatives began last year with former Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, and then finalized recently with Weiser. Both Coffman and Weiser praised the dioceses’ willingness to address this issue.

“It is well known that child sexual abuse is a societal problem that demands attention and action,” said Weiser. “I am pleased the Church has recognized the need for transparency and reparations for victims.”

Coffman added: “Childhood sexual abuse is not specific to one institution or to the Catholic Church. The spotlight is on the Catholic Church, but this abuse is indicative of what has happened in other institutions. We want to shine a light on what has happened.

“[The dioceses] demonstrated their commitment to acknowledging past abuse by priests and moving forward with honesty and accountability.”

The independent file review will be handled by Robert Toyer, a former U.S. Attorney for Colorado. His final report is expected to be released in the fall of 2019 and will include a list of diocesan priests with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors, along with a review of the dioceses’ handling of the allegations. The report will also include an evaluation of the dioceses’ current policies and procedures, something that was not included in other states’ reviews, such as the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report.

“We in Colorado have found our own way in the wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report,” said Weiser. “We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.

Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, alongside Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, speaks during a press conference announcing a comprehensive joint agreement with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office to conduct an independent review of the dioceses’ files and policies related to the sexual abuse of children at the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on February 19, 2019, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Archdiocese of Denver)

“This is not a criminal investigation. This is an independent inquiry with the full cooperation of the Catholic Church,” said Weiser.

Since 1991, the Archdiocese of Denver has had a policy of mandatory reporting of all allegations to local authorities. The procedures were further strengthened by the 2002 Dallas Charter to include comprehensive background checks, zero-tolerance policies, safe environment training, and training for children as well.

“This independent file review presents an opportunity for an honest and fair evaluation of the Church in Colorado’s historical handling of the sexual abuse of minors by priests,” said Archbishop Aquila.  “We are confident in the steps we have taken to address this issue and that there are no priests in active ministry currently under investigation.”

We have a set of dioceses here who came to the table to develop appropriate solutions that are collaborative, committed to transparency and put victims first.”

The independent reparations program will be run by two nationally recognized claims administration experts, Kenneth R. Feinberg and Camille S. Biros, who will review individual cases and make financial awards to victims who elect to participate. The victims are free to accept or reject the award, but the Colorado dioceses are bound by what the administrators decide.

The program will have oversight provided by an independent committee chaired by former U.S. Senator Hank Brown. More details will be announced in the coming months, and the program will officially open closer to the release of the final report.

This is similar to a program instituted by former Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2006. Archbishop Aquila said it is important for local Catholics to know the program will be funded by archdiocesan reserves, with no money being taken from ministries or charities at parishes, annual diocesan appeals, or Catholic Charities.

“With humility and repentance, we hope the programs announced today offer a path to healing for survivors and their families,” Archbishop Aquila said.

And acknowledging how painful this has been for everyone in the Church, Archbishop Aquila said he hopes this is step towards restoring confidence among the faithful.

“Helping people to restore their trust, to live their faith, that is essential,” said Archbishop Aquila. “And to help them have a deeper encounter with Jesus Christ, so that is my goal in all of this. I know that healing is possible in Jesus Christ.”

For a copy of the full agreement and a detailed FAQ, visit archden.org/promise.