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: 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.