Thirty (thirty!) years ago, I experienced probably one of the greatest privileges of my life. I spoke at World Youth Day in Denver with St. John Paul II.
Well, I didn’t speak with him. We spoke at the same event. He was the headliner. I was one of the many “filler acts” that were basically killing time until the Big Man arrived. I doubt that anybody was particularly interested in what I had to say. But still, it was the largest audience I ever spoke to. (The Denver Post said there were 75,000 people in Mile High Stadium. I’m certain that at least half of them hadn’t arrived yet when I ascended the podium. But who am I to argue with the Post?)
I wasn’t living in my beloved hometown at the time. But when the invitation came, I quickly made arrangements to come home and join in the festivities. This was the biggest event the Catholic Denver world had seen — well, probably ever. It was doubly exciting for me — not only was the Pope coming to my home town, but it was this Pope. John Paul II had a profound impact on my life. His Theology of the Body had turned my world upside down, both personally and professionally. At that time, I was a full-time speaker, traveling around the world to spread his message about the beauty of God’s creation as male and female.
World Youth Day was my Woodstock.
When I arrived, Denver was exactly as I had left it — and it wasn’t. In the months leading up to WYD, the city had been experiencing a devastating crime wave. This, of course, made the city very wary of this mysterious Catholic “youth event.” Dumping several hundred thousand teenagers into the midst of a crime-ridden city didn’t seem like such a great idea.
I saw no crime when I arrived. I saw Denver teeming with young Catholics. They were everywhere. The 16th Street Mall was crawling with fresh-faced, polite, enthusiastic fans of JPII. Businesses got into the spirit, offering specials and adopting temporary Catholic names for their wares. (I still have the “Ale Mary” T-shirt I bought at the Rock Bottom Brewery downtown.)
And, in the first of many WYD miracles, nobody saw any crime in Denver during the event. Not only did the visiting young Catholics abstain from breaking the law — apparently so did the criminals. The crime rate plummeted.
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I spoke at Mile High Stadium on the morning of the Holy Father’s arrival day. Frankly, to quote Abraham Lincoln, the world will little note nor long remember what I had to say. Because nobody was paying attention. Everybody was anticipating the Big Event, later that day, when the Holy Father would arrive.
And what an arrival it was!! The stadium was packed. What we saw was a rather small white speck in a little white Popemobile. And yet, my response was the same as it was every time I caught a glimpse of then Pope John Paul II. I immediately broke into tears.
It is an interesting phenomenon. The same thing happened to me the one time I saw Mother (now Saint) Teresa. The tears were spontaneous and immediate. It is a response to holiness. Somehow the soul recognizes it and reacts to it. In fact, at WYD one of my friends remarked “Can you imagine what it’s like to be JPII? Every time somebody looks at you, they start crying.”
He gave an address that evening, but I honestly have no recollection of what he said beyond “John Paul II loves you too!” Frankly, I don’t know how anybody heard anything over all the noise. The next day we were privileged to attend the event at McNichols Sports Arena, where the crowd was a little more subdued. He was easier to hear, and I remember being moved by his words a couple of times. But again, I don’t remember what he said.
The Mass in Cherry Creek Park was an amazing “mass” of Catholic humanity. Aside from the beauty of partaking in the Eucharist with my beloved Pope and half a million of my new best friends, what strikes me about that event is the story I heard about the the park itself. Obviously bringing half a million people into one spot leaves a mark. A big mark. But WYD volunteers worked with local officials on reclamation efforts, the prairie grass was restored, and the site was left even better than it was before the event.
Which leads me to my primary insight about World Youth Day. Just as those kids left a mark on Cherry Creek State Park, St. John Paul II left a mark on Denver. And just as they left the park better than we found it, so the Holy Father left Denver better. The Church here was never the same after his visit. It was revitalized. Parishes were renewed. Lay groups flourished. Religious societies moved here. Catholics moved here, following the stories of Catholic life in Denver. Perhaps most exciting of all, an entire generation of “JPII priests” discovered their vocation during those few magical days.
It was amazing.
Why did that happen? Was it because he gave us a bunch of inspiring thoughts that made people think and pray and eventually become holier? Hardly. Oh, I’m sure he said some very profound things. He always did. But it was nearly impossible to hear him most of the time. Between the noise and the accent and the distractions, most of his actual message was quickly lost.
No, it was something deeper than that. It was the holiness of His Holiness. True sanctity, the power of a person truly on fire for God, doesn’t end with their physical words or their physical presence. I have always said that, when the Holy Father’s plane landed in Denver, it brought 900 square miles of grace with it. And that grace settled on the city, and it didn’t leave. It bore amazing fruit.
That is how his influence is still felt here today, nearly 20 years after his death. It is the grace won by his personal sanctity and the sanctity of the office, reverberating down through the ages.
The same is true for us. We think that the best way we make our mark on the world is to plan our mission, our ministry, our “good deeds.” You know, the stuff we do under our own efforts. And yet, God can do more with our docile, surrendered hearts than He can with all of our personal initiatives.
Not, of course, that we don’t take the initiative. After all, St. John Paul II actually did get on a plane and come to Colorado. But we all know he did it after a lot of prayer and discernment. And we know that it was God, working through the surrendered holiness of the man, whose action keeps that visit bearing fruit 30 years later.
To me, that is the message of World Youth Day 1993. Our primary goal in this life is not to “accomplish great things.” It is to attain holiness, and then see where God leads us.
Because that’s how we “bear fruit that will last.”