This year marks the 30th anniversary of World Youth Day in Denver — a worldwide gathering that Pope St. John Paul II would later call a “revolution.” The host of the Aug. 12-15, 1993, event, Denver archbishop emeritus Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, looks back on the historic “ecclesial experience” and reflects on its legacy in the Church today.
World Youth Day changed this city forever, and we’re coming up on the 30th anniversary. How did it end up in Denver?
World Youth Day in Denver was rooted in something that happened in 1989. That year, Pope St. John Paul II called a meeting of the archbishops of the United States with himself and heads of Roman dicasteries in Rome. It was prompted, it seems, by misunderstandings between the U.S. bishops and the Holy See.
It was a joy to be at the Vatican with the Holy Father, with Vatican officials and with my brother archbishops. I had not met Pope John Paul until then. I had great admiration for him — he had lived through the violence of the 20th century and had become a very holy man. His simplicity, quiet intensity, and friendliness were reassuring. Jesus was present with us and among us. I was privileged to be there. In the Pope’s person, Peter, the first bearer of the keys of heaven, was also present.
We exchanged views on what the relations between the Vatican and the local Churches were. During that weeklong meeting with the Holy Father, a deeper trust developed between the Holy See on the one hand and the American bishops on the other. Mutual understanding matured. The Holy Father became better acquainted with individual Americans and they with him.
Do you recall when you got the call that Denver was the city that had been chosen?
One year later, in 1990, one of the administrators of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops contacted me and said, “The Holy Father is thinking of coming to the U.S. for the next World Youth Day. Among the dioceses that may be considered is the Archdiocese of Denver. What do you think about that?”
I said, “I will consider the matter and pray about it. … I can’t sponsor World Youth Day unless I first check with the governor of Colorado, the mayor of Denver, and the leadership of the archdiocesan priests and laity of Denver.”
After meeting with Gov. Roy Romer, Mayor Wellington Webb, the Archdiocesan Presbyteral Council and the Archdiocesan Finance Council, I received their unanimous support to invite the Holy Father to Denver World Youth Day 1993.
In 1992, the Vatican and NCCB staff evaluated Denver and four other dioceses as the pilgrimage site. Later in that same year, 1992, the announcement was made by the Holy Father that the Archdiocese of Denver would be the site for World Youth Day 1993.
Thirty years later, now, do you still see imprints of World Youth Day in Denver?
What happened at the 1993 World Youth Day was a source of wonder. It was an ecclesial event, an experience of the Church of Christ. I’ve thought a lot about this. Yes, it was an experience of great joy to be together as a group with the Holy Father. Also, it was in the context of the Holy Spirit and that beautiful conversation that’s Trinitarian between the Father and the Son — the eternal thanksgiving of the Incarnate Son to the Eternal Father. Even if the young people were not able theologically to express it — which I wouldn’t have been able to do then, as I’m able now — it was an extraordinary ecclesial experience.
It was an ecclesial experience in tolerance and charity — although tolerance is not quite the word — that was needed to describe the 20-mile pilgrimage walk on a hot Saturday in August to Cherry Creek State Park. Above all, it was a spiritual test of endurance for the hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims. The heat and the distance were especially challenging.
When the people of Colorado in their homes saw these young pilgrims walking on the pilgrimage to Cherry Creek State Park, they came out of their homes with hoses to refresh and cool the young pilgrims down. They invited them to take rest under their trees and also offered them food and water. Their hospitality will not be forgotten. Wherever they were in the world, years later, they would tell me, “You were the archbishop in Denver … we remember. We’ve never forgotten the generosity of the people.” The people of Denver were Christ to them.
And the hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims never forgot one another. They showed tolerance and love for one another. They were patient with one another in that long, long pilgrimage. Then, in the night at Cherry Creek State Park, when it got so cold — they didn’t expect that it would be so cold — the Eucharistic adoration of the Lord again helped them to experience the Church as love, the love of the Holy Spirit, who invited them to be a part of the Trinitarian conversation of love between the Father and the eternal thanksgiving of Jesus to the Father.
They discovered what St. Augustine taught his people in the Church of Hippo in North Africa: “Love itself is the beauty of the soul.”
So, looking back after 30 years — do the graces of World Youth Day remain?
That love is still going on. The laity’s charity is incredible in the Church of Denver. From the beginning, they enhanced their parishes like leaven. In 1991, I began inviting new lay communities here. This has been a significant experience for our parishes.
Because I knew well enough the Neocatechumenal community and Communion and Liberation movement and other new ministries, and I was convinced that they understood the challenges of the Church like nobody else did, the challenge of secularization. And they not only understood it, but they had the Holy Spirit directing them in ways that were institutionally competent in addressing that challenge.
The lay communities are crucial for this challenge; we invited many to Denver. They did immensely important work through the parishes for World Youth Day.
Can you elaborate a bit more on how World Youth Day was an “ecclesial experience”?
It’s not easy to articulate. The gathering of the youth from all nations was an event of the Good News of Jesus Christ. We are the body of Christ. The days, weeks and months during which we were preparing for the Holy Father, and that week in which the world was here to celebrate Jesus of Nazareth with him — these were revelations of the kingdom of God that many had not encountered before. We’ve got to reflect on that reality of Church. It was an ecclesial experience that was priceless, although we have yet been able to express that theologically — the divine intimacy within the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.
To this day, we’ve not done that. Several months after Denver’s World Youth Day, Pope St. John Paul II described it to me as a “revolution.” We need to challenge theologians and catechists: In what sense was it a revolution? What did World Youth Day mean ecclesiologically? Why was the experience so priceless?
Let’s reflect upon the expansion of the Catholic imagination among people of World Youth Day 1993 in Denver, while we still have living memories of the event.
Jean Torkelson is an award-winning writer based in the Denver area; Kevin Knight, the Register’s blog/social media editor, is also based in Denver.