Will this generation respond?

Archbishop Aquila

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!

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The awakening of Denver after WYD '93

The festivities kicked off Aug. 11 at Mile High Stadium, where the Holy Father was flown into via helicopter. It wasn’t just a big deal that World Youth Day was happening in Denver; it marked the first World Youth Day ever to be held in the United States, which means it was the pope’s first encounter with the youth of America in this setting.

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford fondly remembers the pope’s visit to the Mile High City. It’s something he never expected to happen and was just as surprised as everybody else when it did during his episcopacy as Archbishop of Denver.

“To see the Holy Father seated in the episcopal chair in the Cathedral — that doesn’t happen very often,” Cardinal Stafford recalled.“I never dreamed that it would happen.”

Pope John Paul II sits on the episcopal chair in the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.

Yet, what many don’t know is that this event that would change the course of American Catholicism came in a time of turmoil for the Church in Denver and America as Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila recalls, who at the time was the Director of the Office of Liturgy of the Archdiocese of Denver.

“The Church was in a period of transition with the implementation of Vatican II, the changes in the Liturgy and other changes. Archbishop Stafford had come in 1986 and the period of experimentation had come to an end. There were some who were resistant to that. There were others who celebrated, and so the church was still somewhat divided,” Archbishop Aquila said.

To see the Holy Father seated in the episcopal chair in the Cathedral — that doesn’t happen very often. I never dreamed that it would happen.”

When WYD came about, the pope invited the faithful to focus on Jesus himself, springing forth a renewed sense of unity in the archdiocese.

“WYD brought a real unity to the clergy and to the faithful of the archdiocese. Part of that was through the various talks that John Paul II gave, his emphasis on an encounter with Christ and his words… It brought in a whole new energy into the Church. There was almost spirit of maintenance, of just keeping things going, and WYD brought in the aspect of a deeper formation, a deeper relationship with Christ, and a deeper living out of the faith in the world,” Archbishop Aquila evoked.

Fertile soil, abundant fruit

The Denver youth responded with an open and generous heart to the Holy Father’s calling. They left quite an impression on Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Stafford recalled.

“There were 100,000 young people in the stadium in Denver, and I was standing below him and looked up and there were tears on his face. When he went back to Rome, he was filled with joy and enthusiasm for the people of North America in a way that had not been present before,” Cardinal Stafford said. “When he saw me several months later, it was in a meeting in Rome, and the only thing he said to me was, ‘Ah Denver, Denver, una rivoluzione!

“He was overwhelmed by the mystery of the young people in Denver. They are in love with people, they are in love with God, they are a beautiful people because of that.”

Denver, Colorado, Saturday, August 14, 1993, World Youth Day 1993, Pope John Paul II, Pope John Paul II celebrates Mass at Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception for pilgrims from each diocese in U.S. and International delegates, James Baca/Denver Catholic Register.

What many Catholics and non-Catholics found impressive about WYD ‘93 was the love, enthusiasm and initiative with which the youth responded to God’s call put forth by the Holy Father.

“I think part of [what made Denver such fertile ground] was the presence of Archbishop Stafford and his real desire for people to come to know Christ and to really be faithful to him and to the teachings of the Church,” Archbishop Aquila said. “When he became Archbishop of Denver, he had a wealth of experience in guiding people in service of the poor and really care for the poor, a deep love for Catholic education and a real support for Catholic schools.

He was overwhelmed by the mystery of the young people in Denver. They are in love with people, they are in love with God, they are a beautiful people because of that.”

“There were initiatives that he had begun that helped people be more receptive to Christ and to the Church.”

A quarter century later, the Archbishop of Denver sees that WYD touched the laity the most, a reality he sees evident in the many new apostolates that sprung out after ’93.

Looking at the next 25 years, he hopes that what began with St. John Paul’s visit to Denver will deepen and expand as the Church goes out to make disciples in society.

“I would hope that the Church would continue to grow and to really go out and witness in her service to the poor, in Catholic education and in our Catholic schools,” Archbishop Aquila concluded. “I would hope to see more active parishes that are truly rooted in going forth and making disciples. That there would be the kind of fire in Denver similar to the early Church, where many lay people would go out and teach others the faith and invite them to encounter Christ.”

Aaron Lambert contributed to this report.