.- This week, some 600 young people from Denver, Colorado will complete the overseas trek to join an estimated 800,000 youth from around the world--as well as Pope Benedict XVI--for the 20th World Youth Day.
The city is still awash with memories of Pope John Paul II’s 1993 visit for that year’s World Youth Day celebration held in Denver, a moment which many say, lit the fire for the Archdiocese of Denver to become one of the strongest and most well-respected in the country.
John Paul instituted the worldwide event in 1984 in his native Poland as a profound way to reach out to the youth of the planet with the message of the Gospel.
Pope Benedict commented during his inauguration ceremony last spring that, "If we look at these young people who were gathered around the late Pope, and as a result, around Christ, whose cause the Pope espoused, something just as comforting could be seen: it is not true that young people think only of consumerism and pleasure. It is not true that they are materialistic and self-centered.”
“Just the opposite is true,” he said. “Young people want great things. They want an end to injustice. They want inequalities to be overcome and all peoples to have their share in the earth's goods. They want freedom for the oppressed. They want great things, good things."
While most admit that the new pope has big shoes to fill, many are convinced that Benedict is up to the challenge.
Karen Wasinger, a youth minister from the Shrine of St. Anne parish near Denver, told the Denver Post that, "I think Pope Benedict's really looking to continue the call upon young people to be the light of Christ."
Likewise, Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George is excited to see the new pope’s impact on the young people. He told the Chicago Tribune that, "He's shown himself in crowds to be such a humble man, such an authentic man…Young people will respond well to that. They respond well to authenticity, and he is who he is. There is nothing there that is not utterly truthful."
While 15-year old Neyhelly Ochoa, from the Chicago suburb of Melrose Park, is disappointed that she won’t get to see John Paul II at this year’s WYD, she told the Tribune that, "I still think it's going to be really cool. We all loved John Paul and he taught us so many different things…Now, we have a new pope and I want to give him a chance. I want to see how he acts on this trip with the young people and what he tells us to do."
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops estimates that 24,000 young people from the U.S. will be in Cologne.
Denver’s 19-year old Philip Oldham plans to be front and center for what many see as a defining moment in Benedict’s young papacy.
The Holy Father has said that he wants be a unifier for the Church, and Oldham told the Denver Post that he’s “excited to see how he does it.”
"As a cardinal, he was a strict enforcer of dogma,” Oldham pointed out. “He put a nix on things coming through that didn't line up with Catholic dogma." But, he added, this is a prime chance for the new pontiff to light a fire in the hearts of Catholic youth.
"Some people just think, 'We're going to Germany,' not 'We're going to see the pope.' We need to keep focused on the reason we are there, and that's Jesus," he said.