Re-Engaging a Generation

Denver 1993: Launching Pad for the New Evangelization

It’s been 20 years since World Youth Day 1993. It’s no accident that Blessed John Paul II chose Denver for the event. Archbishop Charles Chaput remembers being on the committee that made recommendations to the Holy See about which city should host the event.

“The vote in that group of bishops went to Minneapolis/St.Paul because of the large number of Catholics there, because they were experienced at having major events,” he said. “Nonetheless, the Holy Father chose Denver.”

I think that’s because World Youth Day was never just about the attendees, but about the world he intended to unleash them on. Like Jesus, who loved preaching with the sea as his backdrop—an image of eternity that, unlike the sky, is accessible to man—John Paul II loved to pick key locations that would help him convey his message. He often made reference to the symbolic meaning of where he was while preaching. And multiple times during his presentations at World Youth day ‘93, the Holy Father referenced “the modern metropolis.”

Denver is a thoroughly New World city—not just historically but spiritually. As strong as the Church is in Denver, by no means is it a Catholic city. Catholics only represent 16.4 percent of the population. Nor is Colorado known as a pro-life state. It was the first U.S. state to legalize abortion. Nor was it a “safe” city at the time. World Youth Day coincided with a terrifying wave of gang violence in the city that took the lives of innocent bystanders. The “culture of death” John Paul II described was alive and well in Denver.

Think of the audacity of the Holy Father, to bring a Catholic event for youth here—in the hope of drawing hundreds of thousands of attendees! What he saw in Denver that few others saw, was the perfect launching pad for the “new evangelization,” which he constantly spoke of—that is, a renewed proclamation of the Gospel to a world that’s already heard of it (as opposed to non-Christian cultures), using all the energy, creativity and means of modern communication at our disposal.

The late Bishop Roger Kaffer, who was an auxiliary bishop in Joliet, Ill., privately relayed a conversation to me that he’d had with John Paul II about the connection of World Youth Day and the new evangelization.

Bishop Kaffer: “I’m talking about your upcoming visit to Denver at every confirmation. Is there something I can tell the youth that ‘the pope told me to tell you’?”

JPII: “I wrote you a letter!” the pope shot back, referring to his 1985 Apostolic Letter to the Youth of the World.

Bishop Kaffer: “I know. I read it. But I want something live from you.”

JPII: “Yes. Last year (1992) I went to the Dominican Republic to inaugurate the 500th anniversary of the evangelization of the Americas. I consider my coming to Denver (for World Youth Day ’93) to be the close of that jubilee year and the beginning of the new evangelization of the Americas and of the world, and I’m counting on youth to help.”

And help they did!

I wonder how many reporters had to trash the stories they prepared for the event with headlines like “Catholicism proves its irrelevance with dismal turnout for World Youth Day in Denver.” Or perhaps, “Young people show up in droves to protest antiquated Church.” Or worse, “Young people caught in the crossfire of gang violence.” Instead, 750,000 teens showed up. I guess they hadn’t gotten the memo that Catholicism doesn’t speak to young people. As for Denver’s violence, all crime in the city came to a grinding halt during the event. It’s hard to count the number of people I’ve met whose lives were changed, who discovered a vocation, or birthed a new apostolic initiative because of that World Youth Day.

Anti-Catholic reporters were probably as dumbfounded as the devil was on the first Easter Sunday. Wherever they’re hosted, World Youth Days tend to be among the largest gatherings in a nation’s history, if not the largest. Denver was no exception. (I’ve often heard World Youth Day referred to as “the Catholic Woodstock.” For the record, World Youth day tends to outnumber Woodstock by anywhere from a half-million to 5 million young people. I think it’s more proper to call Woodstock “the secular World Youth Day!”)

I’ll never forget the pope’s words, standing in Cherry Creek State Park as a teenager, as he made it clear that World Youth Day, like all the graces God gives, wasn’t just about us. It was about God sending us to light up the world.

“Young pilgrims, Christ needs you to enlighten the world and to show it the ‘path to life.’”… At this stage of history, the liberating message of the Gospel of life has been put into your hands. And the mission of proclaiming it to the ends of the earth is now passing to your generation. … 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 (see Rom 1:16). … Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern ‘metropolis.’ It is you who must ‘go out’ …”

In a world that tends to set the bar for young people so low, the confidence the Holy Father had in us to carry on the new evangelization was life-changing. It reminds me of the confidence our Lord placed in the apostles, putting the Church in their very “under-qualified” hands! God always sees more in us than we see in ourselves, doesn’t he?

Twenty years later, it’s time to give thanks for the grace of World Youth Day ‘93, and to re-commit to the great commission Blessed John Paul II handed on to our generation. When it comes to the new evangelization, nothing less than the future of civilization and the eternal destiny of countless lives hinges on our success.

Blessed John Paul II, pray for us.

Denver 1993: Launching pad for the new evangelization