DENVER — It was an event bigger than Woodstock, and it featured a man who captivated the hearts and minds of youth who came from all over the world. Looking back at this historic event, World Youth Day in 1993 changed the culture and defied expectations of political, religious and secular establishments.
“Imagine Woodstock with all of the good and none of the bad,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, who managed communications for Denver’s World Youth Day. “It was an event of more than 100,000 young people that changed society, but there was no marijuana; no beer bottles on the ground.”
As the event unfolded, the media came to describe Pope John Paul II as a “rock star,” due to his magnetic appeal among hundreds of thousands of youth who traveled from all over the globe. The Pope came to describe Denver’s World Youth Day as a “revolution.”
It began 20 years ago on Aug. 11, when the Pope arrived in Colorado for five days of activities that culminated with an Aug. 15 Mass at Cherry Creek State Park.
When the Holy Father arrived by helicopter — praying the Rosary on the way — for an event at Mile High Stadium, he was greeted by ovation after ovation from adoring young people and a rainbow over the southwestern sky. Cardinal J. Francis Stafford was archbishop of Denver at the time and accompanied the Holy Father throughout his visit.
“Young people were pointing to it [the rainbow] in wonder,” Cardinal Stafford told the Denver Catholic Register last month. “The Pope wept openly before the thunderous ovations of the universal Church.”
Sister Mary Ann, now director of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, helped credential more than 4,000 reporters from around the world and said most had expectations vastly divergent from what transpired.
“The national media, in particular, had a story line in their heads,” she explained. “They were expecting protests of the Church position on birth control and abortion and had prepared all sorts of background material for it. Instead, they found all these young people focused on celebrating the Church and the Holy Father. They had to talk about disgruntled Catholics in other parts of the world just to use some of the material they had prepared for Denver.”
Among the young attendees was Giovanni Capucci, who traveled from Italy at the age of 19. Today, he’s known as Father Capucci, judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Denver.
“It was such a marvelous event that it’s difficult to express,” Father Capucci said. “It was a beautiful experience of communion, with hundreds of thousands of people coming from all over the world. Pope John Paul II was able to transmit the Holy Spirit to all of us. You could just feel the holiness and the presence of God. It so radically changed my life that every single day since has been fulfilling.”
Cardinal Stafford said expectations were universally low. No one anticipated the impassioned, loving connection witnessed between legions of youth and Pope John Paul II.
“The Woodstock generation and its sequel seemed tone-deaf to Jerusalem and Rome,” he explained in his Denver Catholic Register interview. “Different generations lived apart, each constructing its own Tower of Babel. An abyss separated Woodstock and Cherry Creek Park. Intergenerational communication was atrophying.”
In Washington, pessimism prevailed about the Pope’s Colorado visit. Media in Europe warned of Denver’s growing murder rate and dangerous Wild West mentality.
“It was predicted that the papal initiative would attract no more than 20,000 young people. Mile High Stadium would be more than adequate, they said, for the activities culminating with the vigil and papal Mass,” Cardinal Stafford recalled.
As the event grew near, registrations began to far exceed expectations. The city’s large NFL stadium would not begin to accommodate the crowds arriving for the papal Mass, which was moved to Cherry Creek State Park.
Father Edward Buelt, pastor of Our Lady of Loreto parish in Foxfield, Colo., was in charge of infrastructure and logistics and said more than 225,000 participants registered and attended World Youth Day events.
Published estimates place attendance at the papal Mass much higher, at around 500,000 participants.
“There have been a lot of reports that it was expected to be a disaster, and no one was going to show up,” Father Buelt told the Register. “We didn’t have that expectation in the Archdiocese of Denver. We knew it would be a grand success in every way, shape and form, and that’s how it played out.”
‘An Outpouring of Blessings’
Catholics throughout Colorado have talked for the past 20 years about resurgences in the faith they attribute directly to World Youth Day. Apostolates have formed in cities and villages throughout the Rocky Mountain West over the subsequent two decades.
Teenagers, including Father Capucci, discerned vocations during and after World Youth Day and serve today as deacons, brothers, sisters and priests throughout the country. They reminisce about finding Christ’s love in Denver with more passion than old hippies discuss “free love” at Max Yasgur’s Woodstock farm.
“We’ve had flourishing Catholic life throughout Colorado ever since,” said Karna Swanson, media spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Denver. “We’ve had the founding of two seminaries, the founding of very prominent apostolates and the establishment of Centro San Juan Diego (a Hispanic institute for family and pastoral care). We have seen an outpouring of blessings since 1993.”
The blessings are known in Rome and throughout the world.
“The city is now viewed as an international center of Catholic renewal and reform,” said Cardinal Stafford.
Sister Mary Ann believes the blessings of World Youth Day spread throughout the United States. She credits Denver for the growing success of subsequent World Youth Days in other countries.
“Oh, the event has grown considerably because of the success in Denver,” Sister Mary Ann said. “The Vatican wanted to do this in the United States because it hadn’t really taken off.”
According to Father Buelt, the effects of WYD weren’t particular to Denver, but spread nationally and internationally. “Every one of those 225,000 young people returned home and reinvigorated their own churches, communities and families. I’m always concerned that Denver is made to look like some sort of kingly beneficiary. We’re just a place in which the Holy Spirit touched the lives of 225,000 youth who went out and made disciples.”
Father Buelt expresses disappointment that the secular culture didn’t get more from World Youth Day. “The city itself was given the gift of peace, harmony and good will that results when people get together to worship the Lord and serve the poor,” he said. “If society wanted to learn how to live in peace and good will, it should have studied more of what World Youth Day stood to teach.”
Adults Were Transformed Too
Pope John Paul II initiated plans for World Youth Day in 1984, with the first celebration in 1986. The Denver event was the eighth celebration and the first to become an international media sensation.
“It was understood that, with all the U.S. media, the world would be able to see what this was really all about, and it worked,” Sister Mary Ann explained.
John Paul II obviously changed the lives of youth in attendance, who today are middle-age adults bringing up children while leading parishes and ministries. Swanson has learned that a lesser-understood phenomenon involves John Paul II’s influence on clergy, adults and the media who were in Denver.
“If you look at stories before this event, there was a lot of cynicism,” explained Swanson, who immersed herself in World Youth Day research to prepare for the Denver archdiocesan 20th anniversary celebration and Mass on Aug. 15. “People did not believe the youth would be interested in something like a World Youth Day. [They said] kids wouldn’t want to see the Pope and wouldn’t take interest in his message. What the adults saw was this tremendous interest among the youth, and that changed their own hearts and minds.”
Among transformed adults is Jefferson County Sheriff’s Deputy David Luksch, a deacon at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Boulder, Colo., just north of Denver. Before World Youth Day, Luksch was a 36-year-old “abrasive cop” with a career and personal life in free fall.
Luksch grew up Catholic, married a Methodist and as a young cop stopped going to church.
“One morning, I was just too tired to go to Mass, and I decided to stay in bed,” Luksch said. “The earth did not open up and swallow me. I began skipping Mass all the time and justified it.”
Over the years, he grew further from the faith, and his secular life became so meaningless “I contemplated self-destruction.”
When World Youth Day arrived, all officers in his department were directed to help with various events throughout metro Denver.
“What really impacted me was the faith of those kids,” he recalls. “It made me long for what I was missing. It brought me into contact with what would become the centering force and focus of my life, which is God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
A Revolution of Faith
Returning to Mass shortly after World Youth Day, Luksch heard the Gospel Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11). A homily that followed spoke to everything wrong in his life.
“During the Consecration, as the priest lifted the Host, I had this great revelation as to why my life was so screwed up,” Luksch explained. “I wasn’t missing something. I was missing Someone. At that moment, I experienced Christ in the Eucharist for the first time in my life.”
Soon came a calling to enter seminary for the deaconate — a feat he believed could not work with a Protestant wife, children who had not been churched and an unforgiving work schedule.
“I told God, ‘If you want me to be a deacon, you have to make it happen.’ I could not see a way,” Luksch said.
Before long, his wife entered RCIA and converted to the faith. Luksch was promoted to a position with a flexible schedule, and the couple immersed their children in the faith.
“Every objection I had to this call to the deaconate suddenly disappeared after I spoke to God,” said Luksch.
Today, Luksch works closely with a Boulder priest, Father Peter Mussett, who discerned his priestly vocation while attending World Youth Day as a teenager — just two of the countless Catholics whose faith was revolutionized by their participation in WYD 1993.
As Cardinal Stafford remembered, “Just two months after Denver’s World Youth Day, the Pope greeted me with these words, ‘Ah! Denver, una rivoluzione!’”
Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.