Pope John Paul II said he came to Denver to proclaim the Gospel in the “modern metropolis,” but some organizers thought only 60,000 pilgrims would show up. The 750,000 people who gathered in Cherry Creek State Park proved them wrong. Today, the Church continues to face obstacles, and it must be asked: Will this generation respond with the same openness to the Holy Spirit and courageous faith?
Twenty-five years ago, very few people expected what St. John Paul II later dubbed “a revolution” to happen in the “cow town” called Denver. Yes, it was a newer city in the American West that was growing, has some of the most beautiful natural wonders in our country, and the Church was experiencing growth from an influx of Latino immigrants. But the witness of the joy, enthusiasm and love that poured forth over those five days in August surprised many.
There are other fruits that were born from World Youth Day in Denver. For many young people, their faith was deepened, and the foundation was laid for their vocation to the priesthood, religious life or marriage. Our archdiocese has also witnessed a boom in lay-run apostolates in the wake of World Youth Day, especially compared to other dioceses around the country. It’s also fair to say that our local Church was energized by the faith-filled experience of 1993.
At the same time, we must be realistic about the headwinds the Church is currently encountering, both locally and on a national level. When one compares the weekly Mass attendance statistics for the archdiocese between 1990 and 2017, the downward trend in the practice of the faith is clear. In 1990, 37 percent of Catholics in the archdiocese attended Mass each week, but in 2017 only 23 percent of the flock came to Mass that often. It is telling that this drop occurred even as the population of Catholics in the archdiocese increased by 250,000 people over the same period. The numbers tell a similar story on a national level, with 39 percent reporting weekly Mass attendance in 1990 and 23 percent saying they attended in 2017, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).
These numbers paint part of the picture, but they only give you a bird’s-eye view of the Church. I know from my time as a priest and these past six years as archbishop that although the practice of the faith is declining in some parts, there are also very vibrant ministries, parishes and families throughout northern Colorado. Certainly, this is good, but we cannot be content with the status quo.
The time has come, as we celebrate the 25th anniversary of World Youth Day, for a new “revolution” in how the people of the archdiocese live out our faith and share it with others. Over the last three years, I have spoken with all the priests of the archdiocese about the need to promote this culture of discipleship. In the last few months, with their input and the contributions of numerous lay people, we are focusing on four areas that will help create the foundation for such a culture. They are: formation in discipleship, changing how we receive people at parishes, equipping disciples to go out, and freeing up priests and parish staff from administrative tasks so they can evangelize.
The most essential part of building a culture of discipleship is forming parishioners so that they have the support they need to become committed disciples, if they aren’t already. Without this core group of people who have encountered Jesus Christ in a life-changing way, the faith can easily become a set of impersonal rules, especially for those who have had no exposure to the faith.
So, how do we support existing disciples or those in formation? As I have discussed with all the priests, we need to create discipleship networks throughout the archdiocese that provide a place for missionary disciples to receive support, share best practices and experience community.
We also need to ask: How do we respond to that person who calls the parish looking for information about Baptism or marriage, or the anointing of the sick, even though they haven’t been to church in years? Do we direct them to the forms they need to fill out, or do we work to create a friendship, seeing the conversation as a moment to receive them as Christ would? These moments could be the gateway to a life-long relationship with Christ and the Church if we approach them differently. In short, we need to look at improving how we receive people who come to our parish or contact us.
The third area of focus is on promoting a culture of going out by teaching the disciples within our parishes how to approach someone who is not close to the Church or has no faith exposure at all. Every parish should ask itself: What events or ministries do we offer that a person without a faith background or a lapsed practice of the faith would be interested in? And if a person is further interested, how do we gradually bring them closer to Christ and the Church?
The final aspect of creating a culture of discipleship that the administrative offices of the archdiocese will be working on is freeing up priests and parish staff for evangelization. Priests, catechists and youth ministers spent years training to share the faith, but too often their time is spent dealing with paperwork. While respecting the autonomy of the pastor, this effort will provide parishes with solutions that relieve some of the operational burdens they experience, particularly in more remote settings.
The analogy of a tree is a great way to describe this creation of a culture of discipleship. The spiritual legacy and fruits of World Youth Day are the trunk, and from that trunk these four areas of effort spring forth as branches. These four branches are just the initial growth of the tree, or a culture of discipleship that I hope and pray will flourish in the Archdiocese of Denver for the next 25 years and beyond. May St. John Paul II intercede for our efforts and may every person in the archdiocese be drawn closer to Christ and his Church!