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: Radical living and my friend Shelly

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I saw my friend Shelly the other day, for the first time in 28 years.

Back in the day, she was Shelly Pennefather, basketball phenomenon. She led Denver’s Bishop Machebeuf High School’s women’s basketball team to three undefeated seasons, a 70-0 record. In her senior year, her family moved to Utica, New York, where she led the Notre Dame High School team to a 26-0 season, giving her a no loss record for her entire high school career. She remains Villanova University’s all-time scorer — men’s and women’s — with a career total of 2408 points.  She also holds the women’s rebound record, at 1171. She is a three-time Big East Player of the Year, the first All-American out of the Big East, the 1987 National Player of the Year, and a winner of the prestigious Wade Trophy. She’s been inducted into the Philadelphia Women’s Big Five Hall of Fame, and Villanova has retired her jersey. After college, she played professional women’s basketball in Japan. She was making more money than anybody I knew.

She doesn’t go by Shelly anymore. These days, she is Sister Rose Marie of the Queen of Angels. She lives in the Poor Clares Monastery in Alexandria, Virginia. She joined their community in 1991 and took her final vows in 1997. They are cloistered, which means that they don’t leave the monastery, except for medical emergencies. Her only contact with the outside world is through letters, and very limited visits with family and friends. She’s never used the internet, doesn’t know what Facebook is, and when she saw a visitor answer a cell phone, she asked “What is that?”

Why? Why on God’s earth would a basketball star of this magnitude just walk away from the game and the fame, or go from being one of the world’s highest paid women’s basketball players to taking a vow of perpetual poverty? Why would an attractive, funny, vivacious 25-year-old woman renounce marriage and family to lock herself up in a monastery? Why would a loving daughter and sister embrace a religious discipline wherein she could only see her family — through a screen —a few times a year, and hug them only once every 25 years? Why would anybody voluntarily live a life in which they could own nothing, sleep no more than four hours at a time (on a straw mat), eat no more than one full meal a day, and use telephones, TV, radio, internet and newspapers — well, never?

It all boils down to this: We’re all gonna die. And when we do, all of the money and the prestige and the accomplishments and the basketball awards are going to fall away. All that will be left is us and God. If we play our cards right, we will spend eternity beholding his face and praising him. And, as St. Augustine says, that is where our truest happiness lies — in this life as well as in the next: “Our hearts were made for Thee, O Lord, and will not rest until they rest in Thee.”

Cloistered sisters like the Poor Clares make the radical choice to live that way now — to begin their eternal life here on earth. As religious sisters, they are brides of Christ, and they focus their lives entirely on their bridegroom, without the distractions of all the stuff that’s going to fall away after death anyway. They spend their lives primarily in prayer — praying for you and for me and for this entire mixed up world and in deepening their own relationship with Christ.

This, it goes without saying, is a radical way to live. It is not for everyone, or even for most people. It is a free choice on the part of the sisters. But they do not take the initiative. God himself is the initiator. He calls them to this life, and they freely respond. Sister Rose Marie herself told her coach that this was not the life she would have chosen for herself, but it was very clear to her that it was the life God was calling her to.

I finally got to see Sister Rose Marie last weekend, as she celebrated the 25th anniversary of her solemn vows. I had the privilege of witnessing the once-every-25-year-hugs she gave her family. I spoke to her briefly, from behind the screen. She was always a cheerful person. But I saw a joy and a radiance in her that day that I have rarely seen ever, in anyone. It was beautiful.

The great gift these sisters give to us, aside from their prayers, is that they remind us that this life, and all its pleasures and distractions, will not last forever. And their dedication and their joy give us a small glimpse into the joy that is in store for us, if we can only imitate in some small way their singular focus on their Bridegroom.

Pray for them. And pray for the grace to do what they do — to rise above the distractions of this world and look toward the life that never ends.