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WYD-1993: The Turning Point

“This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel…It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.”

Pope John Paul II embraces a young woman during the closing Mass of World Youth Day in Denver in 1993. (CNS photo/Joe Rimkus Jr.)

On this 25th anniversary of World Youth Day in Denver, I can’t help sharing one of my favorite personal memories of John Paul II.

It was December 15, 2004, and as had become our custom during the years when I was preparing Witness to Hope, I was having a pre-Christmas dinner with John Paul, who loved the Christmas season — and believed in opening his Christmas presents when he got them. That year, I had brought him a very large photo album, National Parks of the United States, which the Pope proceeded to unwrap as soon as I gave it to him, with some help from then-Archbishop Stanislaw Rylko. The 263rd successor of St. Peter then looked at the table of contents — and immediately turned to Rocky Mountain National Park.

After a few minutes of quietly browsing through the pictures, John Paul got that look in his eye, and said across the table, “Hmm. Rocky Mountain National Park. Hmm. Denver. World Youth Day. 1993. Hmm. Bishops of America said it couldn’t be done. I… proved… them… wrong!” The last sentence was spoken through a big smile, with as much force as the Parkinson’s-ridden pope could muster, and he punctuated it by stabbing his finger down on the page with each dramatically drawn-out word.

The memory of those remarkable days in August 1993 obviously meant a lot to him, and he wasn’t exaggerating the opposition he faced in bringing World Youth Day to the Mile High City. Despite its successes elsewhere, a lot of American bishops thought that a Catholic youth festival just wouldn’t work in the United States. But the Pope insisted that he wanted a World Youth Day in America; Archbishop J. Francis Stafford wanted World Youth Day as a kick-start to the re-evangelization of the Denver archdiocese; and after some efforts were made to hold the event in Buffalo (where it was thought it might attract Canadian pilgrims) or Chicago, Denver got the nod and Archbishop Stafford and his team set to work preparing WYD 1993.

It was a colossal undertaking that exhausted everyone involved in it (except, perhaps, for the ebullient John Paul II), and it succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations (except, again, for the Pope). The event itself was a marvel. The helicopter pilot who flew John Paul into the old Mile High Stadium said the noise from the cheering crowd created air turbulence the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since being under fire when flying in Vietnam. The chief of police later noted that there hadn’t been a single felony arrest in the city during the entire time World Youth day was underway — right after Denver had been experiencing a serious crime wave. Skeptical people who hadn’t seen the inside of a church in years found themselves giving water and candy to young pilgrims as they walked 15 miles through and out of the city they’d transformed, to the closing Vigil and Mass at Cherry Creek State Park.

And during that Mass, the Pope brought it all to a fine, dramatic conclusion with this challenge:

Do not be afraid to go out on the streets and into public places, like the first apostles who preached Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns, and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel…It is the time to preach it from the rooftops.

WYD 1993 was not just a triumph for John Paul II, and for now-Cardinal Stafford and his team; it was a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, and its effects are still being felt on this silver jubilee. Before WYD 1993, too much of Catholicism in America was in a defensive crouch, like too much of the Church in western Europe today. After WYD 1993, the New Evangelization in the United States got going in earnest, as Catholics who had participated in it brought home the word that the Gospel was still the most transformative force in the world. Before WYD 1993, U.S. Catholicism was largely an institutional-maintenance Church. With WYD 1993, Catholicism in America discovered the adventure of the New Evangelization, and the living parts of the Church in the U.S. today are the parts that have embraced that evangelical way of being Catholic.

That crucial turning point on the road to a Catholicism of missionary disciples should be remembered with gratitude.

About George Weigel 185 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Fragility of Order: Catholic Reflections on Turbulent Times (Ignatius Press, 2018). Mr. Weigel received a B.A. from St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore and an M.A. from the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto. He is the recipient of eighteen honorary doctorates in fields including divinity, philosophy, law, and social science.

22 Comments

  1. As an English catholic I follow occasionally what’s going on in the US church. Sadly it seems in crisis if Church Militant website is anything to go by and I believe that it is. It seems that the church is having an existential crisis that the bishops, on the whole, seem to be trying hard to keep a secret from the faithful. A major clear out of mainly homosexual clergy would seem to be in order. Good luck with that.

  2. Aug. 8th: I don’t know when George wrote this article but a lot has changed this then. I am not ashamed of the Church – the mystical Bride of Christ, but I am deeply grieved and ashamed of what some Cardinals, Bishops and Priests have done – sexual and financial corruption…for decades. Sorry George, bragging about your time with Pope John Paul does not answer to or ease the grieving, sorrowful hearts of the flock frightened and disheartened at the betrayal of their shepherds.

  3. AS HARD AS IT IS TO HEAR ALL OF THE BAD NEWS ABOUT OUR TRUSTED BISHOPS & PRIESTS ETC. IT IS GOOD THAT IT IS FINALLY OUT!! BUT WILL NOT SERVE A GOOD PURPOSE UNLESS THE ONES IN CHARGE ARE READY TO GO TO THE VERY DIRTY BEGANINGS & GET RID OF EVERYTHING AND EVERY ONE WHO HAS HAD A PART IN THIS SEXUAL SICKNESS. IT IS A SICKNESS WILLINGLY DISHED OUT BY THE DEVIL AND IT NEEDS TO BE TREATED AS SUCH!!! GOD HELP ALL THOSE YOU ARE INTRUSTED TO CLEAN UP OUR BELOVED CATHOLIC CHURCH. THEY ALL NEED OUR CONSTANT PRAYERS.

  4. World Youth Day 1993 was certainly a turning point for Mother Angelica of EWTN. Her response is available on YouTube and is full of religious fervor.

  5. “WYD 1993 was not just a triumph for John Paul II, and for now-Cardinal Stafford and his team; it was a turning point in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, and its effects are still being felt on this silver jubilee. Before WYD 1993, too much of Catholicism in America was in a defensive crouch, like too much of the Church in western Europe today. After WYD 1993, the New Evangelization in the United States got going in earnest, as Catholics who had participated in it brought home the word that the Gospel was still the most transformative force in the world. Before WYD 1993, U.S. Catholicism was largely an institutional-maintenance Church. With WYD 1993, Catholicism in America discovered the adventure of the New Evangelization, and the living parts of the Church in the U.S. today are the parts that have embraced that evangelical way of being Catholic.”

    And that’s why we have “soooooo” many vocations to the priesthood now? (Or not.)

    Mr. Weigel has his own narrative regarding John Paul II and the American Church, and that narrative must be protected at all costs, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

  6. This Weigel piece would be almost laughable, if it’s timing weren’t so incredible. What in the world has the man been smoking. Maybe he just wanted to remind everyone that he used to have Christmas lunch every year with JP2.

    • Weigel’s piece is either delusional or mendacious since it is so out of touch with the horrendous reality of perversion and heresy that we all can see and experience ourselves daily in our Church in this country and in Rome. I find it nauseating that Weigel has elevated himself into a lay Prince of the Church to deliver from his molehill Mount Sinai “the way things are” to us ignorant peasants.

  7. Anyone who wants to familiarize him/herself with GW’s extensive writings about our
    faith will soon conclude that he is certainly not oblivious to the ills therein. That
    being said, he takes a long view of things and often dwells on the positive. Why
    shouldn’t he? We all know that the church and her faithful win in the end, so why
    not take note of every advance, since the fallbacks will amount to nothing then.

    ps Church Militant is an alarm calling us to vigilance and they find nothing alarming
    about positives, so they also see through a particular lense

    • Martin –

      Now would be an appropriate time for GW to show some anger at the literal raping of the Church and it’s altar boys and seminarians.

      The complete silence about the matter is not edifying. GE seems to reflects a detachment.

  8. This column is delusional. Conservative Catholicism of Weigel’s variety is dead. WYD events are a complete waste of time and money. They have no lasting beneficial impact on the Church nor the faith of people who attend.

  9. This column marks a turning point for me: the point at which I stopped reading Weigel’s columns and books because he’s lost touch with reality. In one column he managed to crystallize how much he doesn’t understand the Church in America while pompously fashioning himself a guru, a mover and a shaker, an influencer of opinions, a thoughtful analyst. Weigel’s “inside the Roman beltway” Catholicism is no longer relevant nor meaningful. He has nothing to offer.

    Same thing happened with me months ago regarding Bishop Barron. He wrote a silly, out of touch column that made me realize he doesn’t have anything to offer anymore. So no more reading him.

    • I have had exactly the same reaction as you, Megan. The only difference is that I came to this realization earlier than you did. Weigel is an unctuous bloviator for a “conservative Catholicism” that quite obviously does not exist now and I would maintain has never existed. Weigel fancies himself as the eminent JP2-anointed oracle of this illusion and has fashioned it into the narcissistic golden ticket that you so aptly describe. Barron is Weigel’s episcopal counter-face in projecting a doctrinally feckless and rootless emotion-driven caricature of Catholicism that canonizes every aberration of FrancisChurch with hosannas of adulation, from the heretical notion that Hell is empty or does not exist to the heretical notion that the Church’s dogma on the death penalty has been reversed.

  10. “The event itself was a marvel. The helicopter pilot who flew John Paul into the old Mile High Stadium said the noise from the cheering crowd created air turbulence the likes of which he hadn’t experienced since being under fire when flying in Vietnam.” Really, I love these lines. But I also think similar stuff could be written about Donald Trump, Thomas Munson, or Beyoncé. Crowds, emotionalism, youth… they are colorful but don’t carry much meaning. I love JPII, but of all his good deeds, WYD seems like an illusion. It’s the equiv. of summer mission trips. Some good comes of it all, but also a lot of smoke and mirrors. A Turning Point? one on. GW needs a gag order not to mention JPII for a year. It would do both him and us good.

  11. While I am not a great fan of WYDs, I think George Weigel’s point was not about WYD as such, but that its “success” convinced many that American youth could be evangelized and then become evangelizers. That is certainly true. A level of confidence developed among many bishops and priests to try new things — and many of them worked quite well. Priestly and religious vocations did indeed rise and continued to do so until the present pontificate.
    The negativity of many commenters here reminds me of the story of the crazy old lady who went on a weekly search of garbage cans. Every time she found a rag, she kept it; every time she found a silk scarf, she discarded it. Anyone who has followed my writings over the years knows that I am no Pollyanna but, for God’s sake (literally!), can we not admit goodness when we find it and rejoice in it?
    Finally, the obsession of so many commenters with sex says more about them and than about anything or anyone else. Of course, the sexual sins are deplorable and need to be dealt with. However, I would like to suggest that anyone who has practiced artificial contraception, committed adultery or fornication, or frequents porn sites should refrain from any further comments about clerical sexual sins. How did we get these guys? You formed (deformed) them and then sent them to us!

  12. Ashamed by the rather nasty and vicious remarks from some on here calling themselves Catholic and deciding to use his piece as a trashing of both St JPII and his biographer. The abuse crisis for some people is an opportunity to become rather bitter towards the late Pope whom they believe was somehow complicit in covering up abuses, if some his critics actually read Mr Weigel’s book The End and the Beginning, they would soon see that this is nonsense.

  13. I’m still waiting for Mr Weigel’s commentary on the recent Polish Bishop’s guide to Amoris Laetitia. It seems like a natural for his interests, but maybe it’s too current.

  14. With all due respect, it has been so long since the Days when we had “The Courage To Be Catholic”, as evidence by the fact that few in the hierarchy Love their fellow bishops enough to provide them with the necessary fraternal correction in regards to sexual morality, which is grounded in respect for the inherent Dignity of the human person as a beloved son or daughter. What we are witnessing is a Crisis in Faith that has led to a Great Apostasy due to those Baptized Catholics who deny that God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Is The Author Of Love, of Life, and of Marriage. In fact, it is scandalous that a multitude of bishops have permitted those who support abortion and same-sex “marriage”, to receive The Holy Eucharist while denying The Christ.
    How can The Faithful continue to allow this “obstinate persistence of grave unrepentant sin”, to continue to be ignored in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church?
    The Faithful, those who assent to The Teaching of The Catholic Church in regards to sexual morality, are not responsible for the heinous, sexual abuse crisis, and to suggest that The Faithful are “obsessed about sex”, because of their grave concern in regards to certain bishops who refuse to affirm The Teaching of The Catholic Church in regards to sexual morality, and were not capable of discerning that abusive sexual acts should always be reported to the proper authorities, is deplorable.
    In regards to our youth, and WYD, we must be vigilant as to the character of those involved and the content that is presented. We can no longer assume that it is !993.

  15. Thank you Mr. Weigel and Fr. Peter. The McCarrick scandal is a scandal about an American Church that no longer exists. It is a scandal of the late 50s through the early 80s. St. JPII did more to clean up the seminaries without even knowing the extent of the problem by his personal example. That accomplished more than any seminary investigation could have.

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