Guest ColumnistInterview with Cardinal Stafford: WYD Denver changed local, universal Church

Editor's note: In honor of the 20th anniversary of Denver hosting World Youth Day in 1993, Denver Catholic Register interviewed Archbishop-emeritus of Denver, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, about the historic event.

Q: Take us back to 1993: what were event planners’ expectations for Denver’s World Youth Day and what actually occurred?

Cardinal Stafford: In the beginning the expectations were low. The youth and young adult outreach of the Catholic Church since 1968 had spiraled downhill. Many were wringing their hands. The Woodstock generation and its sequel seemed tone-deaf to Jerusalem and Rome. Different generations lived apart, each constructing its own Tower of Babel. An abyss separated Woodstock and Cherry Creek Park. Intergenerational communication was atrophying. On the national scene in Washington, pessimism prevailed. 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. The very identity of the event provoked controversy. Some reached back into the Catholic tradition and called it a pilgrimage. Others disagreed and insisted that the term was anachronistic. Catholic young people had moved beyond pilgrimages. Meanwhile, in Rome, reports were circulating in the papal apartment about the sharp increase in Denver murders in 1993. Visions of an American “Wild West” revived in Europe. And yet, against all odds, registrations of young “pilgrims” were exceeding all expectations. They were flowing in from everywhere. We searched very rapidly for a more expansive site (for the closing Mass) and eventually settled on the Cherry Creek State Park with the indispensable help of state and local officials.

Q: Denver’s WYD wasn’t a traditional pilgrimage experience where one goes to a particular sacred site. What were pilgrims making pilgrimage to and where were they to encounter God?

Cardinal Stafford: The young people of the world transformed the image of Denver. From a secularized city it was seen to embrace a Church of prayer and charity where God is loved above all things. Before 1993 Denver was a kind of spiritual “no-place”; after 1993 Cherry Creek State Park became a crucial place of conversion for the young, similar to the Patriarch Jacob’s “Penuel” (experience of seeing the “Face of God”) by the stream of Jabbok. Before Jacob’s desperate struggle in the dark with a mysterious stranger, the place by the stream Jabbok was a no-place. After the indeterminate outcome of the nocturnal wrestling bout left Jacob (now renamed Israel) limp, Penuel became crucial for belief in the one God. Likewise, on the banks of Cherry Creek, young men and women from across the world together with the people of Colorado became the spiritual stones reconstituting the Church of Denver. The city is now viewed as an international center of Catholic renewal and reform. Penuel anticipated Denver. The stream of Jabbok became Denver’s Cherry Creek. That historic transformation continues. In the flash of the sunlit skies of 1993 Denver, communication between bishops and young people was rekindled. In returning to Rome, the pope was delighted and the Roman Curia was dumbstruck.

Q: What was the greatest joy for you in being part of WYD 1993?

Cardinal Stafford: To see the surprise on the face of Pope John Paul II when he arrived at Mile High Stadium on the last helicopter. His arrival coincided with the appearance of a rainbow over the mountains in the southwest sky. Young people were pointing to it in wonder. The pope wept openly before the thunderous ovations of the universal Church. I was even more humbled by the faces of the young people themselves as the Holy Father was driven around the periphery of the stadium to bless them. Many bishops must have prayed that Thursday afternoon that the Church would not betray the astonishing, open, heartfelt trust of those youthful Catholics. Their witness surprised everyone.

Q: What were the effects of WYD 1993 on the local and on the universal Church?

Cardinal Stafford: Denver, Colo., and the universal Catholic Church were transformed by the event. The front page headline of the Sunday Denver Post on Aug. 22, 1993, said it all: “World Youth Day: Awesome.” It had become not only a Denver Catholic Church event but an event of the state of Colorado. The national and regional increase in religious and priestly vocations is directly traceable to that event. Our two Denver seminaries would not be what they are today without it. They may not have come into existence without it. Only God knows. Finally, at the luncheon on Aug. 15 at the Cathedral Basilica rectory, the archbishops of Paris, Toronto, and, I believe, Manila told me that, based upon their Denver experience they were determined to host a World Youth Day in their sees.

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