It wasn’t as if Pope John Paul II was setting foot on United States soil for the first time — he had toured several cities on visits in 1979 and 1987.
Yet his appearance in Denver at World Youth Day 1993 was so magnetic that it lifted youth ministry to a new high in the Diocese of Rochester.
More than 600 high-school-aged pilgrims journeyed west to spend a few days with the pope and young Catholics from around the world. The Holy Father drew an electric reaction when he first emerged at Mile High Stadium on Aug. 12 in his “popemobile.” The Rochester group and virtually the entire crowd engaged in several minutes of thunderous shrieks, arm-waving, song-singing and jumping up and down in place.
When do you last recall a senior citizen touching off such excitement among young people?
“It wasn’t just 100,000 people pumped up in a stadium. It was much more,” recalled Michael Theisen, diocesan director of youth ministry. “There was something profound that occurred there, and everyone witnessed it.”
Marie Claus, longtime youth minister at Fairport’s Church of the Assumption, agreed. “What was his magic? What was it that drew us to that? I know that when you’re part of a crowd you get emotional. But it was more than that,” she said.
Later that week, the diocesan group was among a wave of young humanity that filled up Cherry Creek State Park, where the pope presided over a Saturday-evening vigil as well as a concluding Sunday Mass for an estimated 500,000 people. The Rochester diocesan group’s excitement level remained high right to the end — and, perhaps even more importantly, after the return home. Theisen remarked that several parish youth-ministry programs were begun or enhanced as a result of World Youth Day.
“It was a key turning point in this country and this in this diocese. The parishes witnessed the excitement of young people and they continued with it,” Theisen said. “It was a huge wave of momentum that we’ve been building on ever since.”
Meanwhile, Bishop Matthew H. Clark observed that the Denver experience very likely influenced the diocesan Synod, which took place less than two months later: Youth ministry emerged as one of the diocesan parishes’ top priorities.
“Certainly the pope’s visit with youth, and excitement generated in our community, carried over,” Bishop Clark said.
The bishop had always been attentive to young Catholics, presiding at such events as the annual Bishop’s Day with Youth. Yet he, as well as the pope, made a new connection with diocesan teens in Denver: Bishop Clark spent much of the week camping out with them and attending activities, when he could easily have opted for more comfortable conditions in a hotel with his fellow dignitaries.
“It was the first time (the youths) had really witnessed Bishop Clark that way, as one with them. He spent an incredible amount of time to be with them,” Theisen said.
Claus recalled that while in Denver, Bishop Clark donned one of the beanie hats brought along by her 23-member parish contingent. She observed that the bishop “has the same type of personality as the pope — someone who really cares about kids.”
Pope John Paul II had begun World Youth Day in 1984 as an annual worldwide celebration, with an international gathering being held every two or three years. For the most part these huge get-togethers have been geared toward young-adult Catholics, yet the emphasis in Denver was on teens as well.
High participation from this diocese occurred once more when the pope and World Youth Day returned to North America in 2002. A diocesan group numbering a few dozen spent the week in Toronto, and a contingent of approximately 1,000 area high-schoolers attended the pope’s Saturday vigil as well as the July 28 Mass that drew more than 800,000 to Downsview Park.
Although Pope John Paul II once more led World Youth Day, his health — which had notably declined in the nine years since Denver — had led many to predict that he wouldn’t make the trip. Indeed, Toronto marked the pontiff’s last World Youth Day, as well as his final journey to North America.
The next World Youth Day is scheduled for Aug. 16-21, 2005, in Cologne, Germany. Theisen strongly hopes that the next pope will carry on this tradition that has been so pivotal in the lives of young Catholics. “The probability is very high — it’s hard to imagine that not happening. Germany is going to be huge if the new pope is there,” he said.
Nonetheless, Pope John Paul has left big shoes for the next pontiff to fill.
“Let’s face it, no other pope gathered young people together like he did. He called them by name — ‘My dear young people’. He spoke to them … how many of us grew up with ‘Kids should be seen and not heard’? Then this pope comes along and says ‘Let me see them and hear them.’ And he heard them,” Theisen said with a chuckle.
“He didn’t just make them feel important. He believed they were important,” Claus said. “It was more, ‘I believe in you, in your potential, that you can change the world.’ Those are significant words for young people who are always hearing the opposite.”
Claus added that many adults, who either attended World Youth Days or heard about them, were affected as well.
“It was a spiritual connection. He made us unified — we have this very holy man in common, it’s unifying us all. It’s everyone, it’s not just about kids,” she remarked.
Staff writer Mike Latona traveled to Denver and Toronto to cover both World Youth Days in North America.