Could the International Eucharistic Congress spark a Catholic revival like Denver’s World Youth Day?

Domonkos Pulay   By Domonkos Pulay for CNA

Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary. / Shutterstock

Budapest, Hungary, Sep 4, 2021 / 21:04 pm (CNA).

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.”

That began to change after WYD ’93.

“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.”

Chris Stefanick. Courtesy photo.
Chris Stefanick. Courtesy photo.

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.”

“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.”

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  1. “Could the International Eucharistic Congress Spark a Catholic Revival?”
    Surely yes, IF the Congress and the Eucharist are clearly seen as TRANSNATIONAL rather than “international”—as transcending the assembly of geographic entities. That is to say:

    “…if the local church is not just the lowest level of the universal Church but is herself an immediate and actual realization of Church per se [….]

    “To celebrate the Eucharist means to enter into union with the universal Church—that is, with the one Lord and his one Body. That is why there belongs to the Eucharist not only the anamnesis of the whole of sacred history but also the anamnesis of the whole communion of saints, of those who have died and of all living believers throughout the world. The outward sign that one cannot manipulate the Eucharist at will and that it belongs to the universal Church is the SUCCESSIO APOLSTOLICA [italics][….]

    “It means, too, that the Church cannot organize herself according to her own design but can BECOME [italics] herself again and again only by the gift of the Holy Spirit requested in the name of Jesus Christ, that is, through the sacrament [….]

    “The mission of the Spirit brings the salvific work of Christ near to men of all times BUT [caps added] never replaces it” (Ratzinger, “Fundamentals of Catholic Theology,” 1987).

    IN SUMMARY: “transnational” as at the heart of renewed “Eucharistic coherence,” and as the absolutely necessary context for any more international “process” of synodality or the administrative convenience of “continental” groupings.

    • Transnational does not simply cross national boundaries, but transcends them; international is more between/among today’s nation-states.

      The perennial Church is transnational, not a collage of national or even continental churches or synods. Will still be around whether nation-states survive or not. Whether past empires survived or not. Unlike, say, the top-down Roman Empire or now the bottom-up United Nations or the incipient new world order. The papacy and collegiality are more than a chaplaincy for such an order…

      The difference between sacramental reality and any passing political compacts or regimes that history might devise.

    • International means the participants are aware that they’re from this country or that, that essentially, it’s a gathering of people from various nations who are going to go back to their nations and have an impact on their nation. The event is, in that sense kind of like a mosaic. Transnational is when the group loses the identity of a “gathering of people of every race and tongue” and becomes a gathering of people – period. The boundaries disappear and suddenly you’re part of something bigger than a collection of people from different nations, you are part of something bigger, synergetic, much more simple and unifed than that. Everyone will be going home, not to trnasform their nation, but to transform the Church albeit right where they are, but the vision for an American won’t be to change things in America, but to change things in the Church. We just happen to be doing it here, but it’s about something much bigger here.

  2. Domonkos reporting for CNA on Curtis Martin, “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”. Despite decades of priests, Academia dons subversion of the faith, that truth is relative to the individual, a cosmic god who is everywhere. Just be yourself and be nice. Chaput left Denver wafting in the ethereal. Heterodoxy remained. Still Denver was successful. Then we had John Paul II and his immense appeal to youth, his revisionist back to the future New Jerusalem. We sorely miss him today despite constant reminder of his naivete, tarried appointments. We seem to forget Christ selected Judas to be holy not to betray. Vatican messaging is presently, has been for a while quite different, more heterodox accommodating as you are metanoia shelved. We are one faith, one Church transcendent of nation and boundaries. Although national idiosyncrasy affects translation of Christ’s revelation. This a marked difference today encouraged by Pope Francis’ vision of diversity. Not simply outwardly cultural rather inwardly anthropological. Transgender will likely be part of Budapest perhaps not agenda but presence, which itself conveys a message. Will the organizers have the moral mettle to speak the Gospel truth, or will they roll over in obeisance to His Holiness and his open armed embrace of all caught in the fisherman’s net. Like Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia’s now worldwide acclaimed fresco. Fishermen after retrieve of contents select and reject jettisoning the repugnant to the sharks. Christ was much more compassionate, although different, actually was quite rigid, requiring a moral metamorphosis.

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