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

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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 plant 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: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]