|Coat of Arms|
Recalling a World Youth Day ’93 moment of grace
Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, my friend and predecessor as archbishop of Denver, hosted World Youth Day in August 1993, and he still likes to tell the following story.
One of his staffers had just moved to Colorado from a much larger and higher crime city on the West Coast. The man was driving his family home late one evening, when the street— four lanes wide—was suddenly blocked by a huge mob of teens swarming out of the dark. As urban panic kicked in, and he threw the car in reverse, his wife helpfully pointed out that the kids were … singing a Marian hymn.
The “mob” turned out to be hundreds of French World Youth Day pilgrims walking back to their parish sleeping quarters. It was a moment of grace—unexpected, implausible and beautiful—and similar moments of grace happened again and again all over the city during those extraordinary days.
I was the bishop of Rapid City during Denver’s World Youth Day. I remember it not just for its scope—more than 500,000 people from all over the world crowded into Cherry Creek State Park for the final Mass with John Paul II; nor for its almost total lack of crime and strife; nor for its astonishing success in the face of so much skepticism—nobody really thought Denver could manage an event this big.
I remember Denver’s World Youth Day for the way John Paul’s humor and zeal lit up the faces of an entire generation. I remember it for the generosity not just of Colorado Catholics, but the whole Denver community, its civic leaders and so many good people from other religious traditions. World Youth Day changed something basic in the way the Church in Colorado sees herself. It marked the border in time between a small diocese in a faraway Rocky Mountain city, and a local Church that serves as a witness to Jesus Christ, and an agent of renewal and apostolic zeal, to men and women well beyond the United States. Obviously, God dwells in every community of Catholic believers who faithfully honor his son. But—at least for this bishop—Denver is and always will be special.
Next week I will leave for World Youth Day in Madrid. Exactly 18 years have passed since that time of extraordinary grace in Denver. A new grace will be given to the pilgrims who gather in Spain. Youth Days remind us that the Church is always young, always beautiful and always alive so long as her people, clergy and religious love God above everything else, and love each other as Christ loves his Church.
As the summer winds down and the duties of autumn begin to crowd back into our lives, we might want to reflect for a few minutes on the Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John climb a mountain and witness the full, transfigured glory of Jesus Christ on the summit. Then the moment passes. They must go down again into the burdens of world. But they are never the same. The memory never ages. The glory lives on in their hearts, for Jesus Christ is always new and always young. And the world can be saved because of it.
This year, as young people from Colorado and around the world leave for Madrid, we need to remember the presence of God that made itself so palpably “felt” here in 1993. The years have passed. We’ve come down from that mountain. But the memory is still alive. The glory is still young in our hearts, and we have so much work yet to do.
May God grant every pilgrim to Madrid the same experience of grace.
To read more from Archbishop Chaput, visit www.archden.org/archbishop.