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: Past 25 years remembered, next 25 anticipated at More Than You Realize conference

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“Be not afraid!”

This was the rallying cry at the Aug. 11 More Than You Realize conference, echoing the very same call St. John Paul II gave exactly 25 years ago when he visited Denver for World Youth Day in 1993.

Over 5,000 faithful from across the Archdiocese of Denver filled the seats of the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland at what was the largest Catholic gathering in Colorado since WYD ’93. The all-day conference was presented in both English and Spanish tracks, featured a dynamic lineup of renowned Catholic speakers, and culminated in a powerful commissioning Mass.

The name More Than You Realize and consequently, the logo resembling an eyechart, stems from the idea that almost everything may appear a certain way at surface level, but upon closer inspection, it can be more than one realizes and seen in a different light. This is especially true when it comes to the Catholic Church.

Over 5,000 gathered at the Budweiser Events Center Aug. 11 for the More Than You Realize conference, which celebrated the last 25 years since World Youth Day in Denver and looked to the next 25. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

In planning for nearly two years, pastors from each parish of the archdiocese hand-picked those parishioners and members of their community who they wished to attend the conference, which revolved around the idea of discipleship. Through engaging videos and talks given by speakers such as Chris Stefanick, Luis Soto and Dr. Edward Sri, attendees were invited to join a new movement of discipleship within the archdiocese, echoing the one sparked 25 years ago at World Youth Day.

“[I] had a great rejuvenating time at the More Than You Realize Conference,” said Alex Martinez, a parishioner at St. Pius X Parish. “I am excited to see the MTYR movement take shape.”

Brenda Garrett, a parishioner of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception said, “It was an amazing event, so blessed my pastor Father Ron from the Cathedral Basilica sent me. I am so proud to be part of this movement.”

The key to evangelization

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford spoke before Mass began about the impact of World Youth Day 1993 and the challenges the Church faces today.

“What does the summer of ’93 teach us about our present circumstances in 2018?” the cardinal asked. “The Holy Spirit was sent out in a special mission to our Church in 1993. The power of that sending was unexpected and disorienting to me as archbishop and to most others.”

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford speaks during the More Than You Realize conference. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

But despite urban violence, threats of boycotts, organized protests and other issues prior to World Youth Day 1993, “a fundamental change took place in the Church of Denver,” said Cardinal Stafford, “but not only here — among the young people who came throughout the world, [and] even the Holy Father.

“Above all, our Church was transformed,” he said.

Cardinal Stafford said that to evangelize those who don’t know the Gospel, we first need “…a deep awareness of the delight of the Father taking in each of us as baptized men and women,” he said.

“I would urge you to think deeply and to pray deeply about realizing how delighted God is in you — each of you — because you are received by the Father as being [part of] the body of his Son, who is beloved.”

‘Jesus is much more than you realize’

In his homily given in both English and Spanish, Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila also touched on what World Youth Day 1993 means for us today.

“The world likes to tell us many things about ourselves,” he said, “and not many of them today are good or uplifting. Just look at the distorted image of beauty that is prevalent today, let alone the distortions of what it means to be a human person…

“The devil is certainly having a field day in a world that has abandoned God, and even in some members of the Church who have a weak faith in Jesus,” he said.

But despite similar issues taking place in 1993, the pope brought to Denver a message of hope.

Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila celebrates the commissioning Mass that closed out the conference. (photo by Andrew Wright)

“When St. John Paul II spoke to the youth gathered for the prayer vigil on Saturday night at Cherry Creek State Park, he reminded them that God and a much bigger role for them to play in history,” said Archbishop Aquila.

That message is just as important today, within an archdiocese and Church that stand at a crossroads, the archbishop said.

“We have an opportunity to make a major impact for Jesus Christ, even as the surrounding culture is becoming less Christian.”

The pope opened the doors for those who attended to become greater disciples of Christ — not just directly after World Youth Day, but forever.

“St. John Paul II believed in retrospect that a revolution had taken place in Denver,” said the archbishop. “We, today, are the inheritors of this spiritual revolution, and we must not be afraid to put out into the deep to let our nets down for a catch.

“Jesus is much more than you realize. The Church is more than you realize. And your role in the plan of God is much more than you realize or [can] even imagine,” he said.

“And so, I beg you as your shepherd today to open your hearts to Jesus and speak heart-to-heart with him who loves you most.”

Aaron Lambert, Moira Cullings and Vladimir Mauricio-Perez contributed to this report.