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: Meeting Christ in the Mass and sacraments

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As Catholics, we recognize Jesus’ Eucharistic presence to be the source and summit of our faith. Nonetheless, we can take His presence at Mass and in the tabernacle for granted. We pray through our liturgical rituals, but our words and gestures can lack meaning when we simply go through the motions. When we use the beautiful ritual of the Mass and sacraments to guide our prayer, however, they can lead us into a deeper encounter with Christ.

Two recent books can help us to understand the Mass and sacraments better and to approach them with fresh eyes: Christopher Carstens’ A Devotional Journey into the Mass: How the Mass Can Become a Time of Grace, Nourishment, and Devotion (Sophia, 2017) and Msgr. Nicola Bux’s No Trifling Matter: Taking the Sacraments Seriously Again (Angelico, 2018).

Carstens takes us on a “devotional journey into the Mass” to approach it in “a more profoundly spiritual way” (29).   He writes with a broad sacramental vision which embraces not only the Mass but also the symbols surrounding it. A great example of this comes from the first chapter, “how to enter a church building,” which reflects upon how to approach the physical building of the church itself. “So the door to the parish church, which stands before us now — is no ordinary entrance. It appears different because it is different: it is a mark of God’s house and a sign protecting those within, as at that first Passover. It is an entrance into the Great King’s city and His Temple . . . where we touch God, as in Jerusalem” (13-14). Carstens uses a “sacramental principle” to help us recognize “how God communicates with us through sensible signs” (9).

This devotional journey takes the reader through the stages of the Mass to perceive the deeper reality that we access through faith. In order to reap the fruit that God wants to give us at Mass, Carstens teaches us that “proper disposition . . . is paramount” (88). Through all of the outward actions, signs, and rituals, God aims at “something deeper:  . . . the heart of man. . . . the undivided love of man” (60; 61). For this reason, in the need for intimacy with God, “silence is an essential ingredient for both individual and corporate prayer” (35). The participation and prayers we offer at Mass should foster our relationship with God. The “conversation should take the form of prayer — a prayer of surrender” (92). Taking a devotional journey through the Mass, with Carstens’ help, should prepare us to enter into this conversation of surrender more fully each week.

Msgr. Bux, an Italian priest and professor, takes us deeper into the sometimes-forgotten history, theology, and liturgy surrounding the Mass and the sacraments. He walks us through each of the sacraments, building upon the teachings of the saints (especially St. Ambrose and Padre Pio), but also the difficulty of experiencing the spiritual reality of the sacraments in the modern world. He also leads us deeper into the Mass, “the greatest and most complete act of adoration,” noting the “interdependence between the Eucharist and the other sacraments: . . . they flow forth from the Eucharist and flow together into it as to their source” (86). The centrality of the Eucharist comes from the fact that through it we enter the heart of God.

The other sacraments reinforce this contact, as “we touch Christ” through them. This entry into the divine life begins at baptism and deepens in confirmation. Bux supports restored order confirmation, speaking of the need for strengthening and equipping for battle at an earlier age, rather than giving into the flight that usually occurs after it is received in the teenage years. When it comes to confession, Bux speaks of how “Christ pardons everyone who recognizes himself to be a sinner,” though the sacrament aims at “sincere, overwhelming interior repentance that brings the soul to be reconciled with the Creator” (103; 104). He also speaks beautifully of how through the sacrament of marriage, “spouses participate in the power of [Christ’s] love” in their love for each other. “Their love, responsible fecundity, and humility, their attitude of mutual service and their mutual fidelity, are signs of Christ’s love, present in them and in the Church” (166).

Both authors teach how to appreciate and enter into the Mass and sacraments more fruitfully, so that, in Bux’s words, we can experience “a prolongation of the liturgical life of the Church” in our own lives (196).