WYD 1993: The Turning Point

George Weigel

On this 25th anniversary of World Youth Day in Denver, I can’t help sharing one of my favorite personal memories of John Paul II.

It was December 15, 2004, and as had become our custom during the years when I was preparing Witness to Hope, I was having a pre-Christmas dinner with John Paul, who loved the Christmas season — and believed in opening his Christmas presents when he got them. That year, I had brought him a very large photo album, National Parks of the United States, which the pope proceeded to unwrap as soon as I gave it to him, with some help from then-Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko. The 263rd successor of St. Peter then looked at the table of contents — and immediately turned to Rocky Mountain National Park.

After a few minutes of quietly browsing through the pictures, John Paul got that look in his eye, and said across the table, “Hmm. Rocky Mountain National Park. Hmm. Denver. World Youth Day. 1993. Hmm. Bishops of America said it couldn’t be done. I… proved… them… wrong!” The last sentence was spoken through a big smile, with as much force as the Parkinson’s-ridden pope could muster, and he punctuated it by stabbing his finger down on the page with each dramatically drawn-out word.

The memory of those remarkable days in August 1993 obviously meant a lot to him, and he wasn’t exaggerating the opposition he faced in bringing World Youth Day to the Mile High City. Despite its successes elsewhere, a lot of American bishops thought that a Catholic youth festival just wouldn’t work in the United States. But the pope insisted that he wanted a World Youth Day in America; Archbishop J. Francis Stafford wanted World Youth Day as a kick-start to the re-evangelization of the Denver archdiocese; and after some efforts were made to hold the event in Buffalo (where it was thought it might attract Canadian pilgrims) or Chicago, Denver got the nod and Archbishop Stafford and his team set to work preparing WYD 1993.

It was a colossal undertaking that exhausted everyone involved in it (except, perhaps, for the ebullient John Paul II), and it succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations (except, again, for the pope). The event itself was a marvel. The helicopter pilot who flew John Paul into the old Mile High Stadium said the noise from the cheering crowd created air turbulence the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since being under fire when flying in Vietnam. The chief of police later noted that there hadn’t been a single felony arrest in the city during the entire time World Youth day was underway — right after Denver had been experiencing a serious crime wave. Skeptical people who hadn’t seen the inside of a church in years found themselves giving water and candy to young pilgrims as they walked 15 miles through and out of the city they’d transformed, to the closing Vigil and Mass at Cherry Creek State Park.

And during that Mass, the pope brought it all to a fine, dramatic conclusion with this challenge: “Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first apostles who preached Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns, and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel…It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.”

WYD 1993 was not just a triumph for John Paul II, and for now-Cardinal Stafford and his team; it was a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, and its effects are still being felt on this silver jubilee. Before WYD 1993, too much of Catholicism in America was in a defensive crouch, like too much of the Church in western Europe today. After WYD 1993, the New Evangelization in the United States got going in earnest, as Catholics who had participated in it brought home the word that the Gospel was still the most transformative force in the world. Before WYD 1993, U.S. Catholicism was largely an institutional-maintenance Church. With WYD 1993, Catholicism in America discovered the adventure of the New Evangelization, and the living parts of the Church in the U.S. today are the parts that have embraced that evangelical way of being Catholic.

That crucial turning point on the road to a Catholicism of missionary disciples should be remembered with gratitude.

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).