The naysayers predicted the 1993 World Youth Day in Denver would be a colossal failure.
Not only were those critics proven wrong, but WYD ’93 ignited a spiritual fire among Catholics in the Mile High City and beyond that still burns brightly today.
FOCUS, Christ in the City, Catholic Sports, Totus Tuus, Camp Wojtyla, Augustine Institute, Real Life Catholic, Evangelization and Family Life Ministries, and ENDOW are just some of the lay movements that can trace their roots to that watershed event 28 years ago.
“It is a transformed place, a place where people want to be, where ministries thrive, and the Catholic Church is strong and fervent,” said Mary Machado, who moved to Denver with her husband Rick in 1988, five years before WYD ’93.
Could this year’s International Eucharistic Congress, taking place this week in Budapest, Hungary, have a similar, revolutionary effect on Catholics in Hungary and throughout Europe?
It’s a question worth asking because of there are many parallels to WYD ’93.
As in Denver, many critics fail to see how a traditional religious gathering like a Eucharistic Congress can have a meaningful impact in these times marked by fears of a global pandemic, deepening secularism, and widening divides within the Catholic Church around the world.
Yet it’s important to remember that grave problems existed in the Church and the wider society in 1993, as well.
“I was not here in Denver ‘til 1998, but I can tell you what it was like being a Catholic in the Western World,” recalled Curtis Martin, founder and CEO of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), based in Genesee, Colorado, which is one of the fastest-growing university outreach apostolates in the Catholic Church.
“It was devastating, it was confusing, we were in the midst of chaos, heresy, apostasy. Every doctrine that had been held consistently for centuries was up for grabs,” Martin said.
“Denver was in radical transformation. Cardinal [James] Stafford closed the seminary because it was empty, there were only a very few seminarians and it was filled with heresy and other moral problems, so he shut it down.”
Annie Powell, co-founder with her husband Scott Powell of Camp Wojtyla, a Catholic outdoor adventure program based in Erie, Colorado, remembers the difficulty the Catholic Church in America had reaching young people prior to WYD ’93.
“My growing up experience in the Catholic Church was, they don’t do anything for kids, not a thing for the youth,” she said. “I really had no sense that anyone was actively Catholic at my age.”
“The prediction was that it would be a miserable failure, that no one would come,” recalled Chris Stefanick, author, speaker and TV host whose apostolate, Real Life Catholics, is based in Greenwood Village, Colorado.
“I remember reporters trying to find young people who would be there to protest and asking questions what they think about the Church's view on abortion, marriage, you know, all these things, trying to find young people that may hate the Church.”
Even church leaders in the Vatican were extremely surprised that the Holy Father chose Denver as the next venue for World Youth Day. They reportedly even tried hard to convince him to pick a different city. But Pope St. John Paul II insisted the event happen there.
“John Paul II had special love for this place. He even put his foot down and said, ‘No, World Youth Day will be in Denver,’ because other people wanted it to be in other cities, bigger cities, said Rick Machado, Mary Machado’s husband.
“He recognized through his discernment of life that there is something special about Denver, that it could be the place of renewal for the New Evangelization.”
Contrary to the predictions, WYD ’93 unfolded in a way that no one expected.
“Nobody believed that the World Youth Day in Denver was going to be successful, including the organizers,” Martin said, “so when hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people came, they weren’t prepared.”
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“The impact was massive,” he continued. “It wasn’t because of the planning or the strategies of how to implement it. It really all happened by the grace of God, and in many ways by Archbishop [Charles J.] Chaput responding to the grace of John Paul having been here for a week.”
Those who remember WYD ’93 say what transpired defies human explanation.
“What we saw tangible here in Denver cannot be explained other than the Holy Spirit and being miraculous,” said Rick Machado. “At that time, if you go back and read the news articles, crime went to almost an absolute zero during that period.”
Scott Powell of Camp Wojtlya recalled being struck by how dramatically attitudes seemed to change in and around Denver during the event.
“My memory of it is that any semblance of animosity or anger toward religion, Catholics, or the pope didn’t seem to exist," he said.
"The whole city of Denver had this experience of people who had smiles on their faces and were happy and were filled with joy and were kind and polite and respectful," he said. "It set a groundwork and created a stage for the Church to thrive here.”
Powell said that World Youth Day changed his own perspective on the Catholic Church.
“It wasn’t a moment of conversion for me, but it was a moment that opened my eyes to how much bigger this thing (the Church) is that I was a part of,” he explained. “The reason why I was able to fall in love with the Catholic Church was because of the kind of Church that was revitalized in a way that was pretty unprecedented when the pope came.”
Even so, Mary Machado points out, the real fruit of WYD ’93 wasn't immediately apparent.
“The actual event was very life-giving, and people were very renewed at that moment,” she remembered.
“You [didn’t] know what the lasting effects would be,” she said. “It was not immediate; it was slowly transforming.”
If Denver's experience is any indicator, then, it will take time before anyone can access the true impact of the International Eucharistic Congress going on this week in Budapest. Pope Francis will celebrate Mass at the conclusion of the event on Sunday, Sept. 12.
“Getting together in massive numbers and publicly celebrating our faith in the midst of a secular city is a paradigm event, it's a model for what we are supposed to do, all do, all the time,” Stefanick observed.
"When people are immersed in that for a weekend or for an evening or for a Eucharistic Congress, like you are going to have in Hungary, it's an experience that you keep going. And that happened here in Denver, no doubt,” he said.
“Denver is still a hotspot for the faith in North America and it's because of what happened over here 25 years ago.”