In a long papacy and especially a historically important papacy like that of soon-to-be Blessed Pope John Paul II, significant milestones are passed and significant initiatives are begun. In the latter category, nothing should compare in modern Church history with the Pope’s desire to convene a World Youth Day somewhere in the world every two years. It was his idea; he called he first one, attended all the rest and seemed to draw inner strength every time. I became General Secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in February of 1989 and soon word began to circulate in Rome that the Holy Father wanted to celebrate a World Youth Day in the United States. My superiors were generally against it, at least my President, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati was, and for some good reasons. The United States did not have the infrastructure to gather so many young people in one place (trains, bus systems, etc. as Europe, for example ) and the potential cost. It also did not help that Cardinal John O’Connor of New York spoke vociferously against it on several occasions (mostly likely fearing that New York would be chosen). So there was a lot of internal opposition but there were also voices and minds open to exploring places and opportunities. My associate General Secretary at that time was Father Dennis Schnurr (now Archbishop of Cincinnati) and I gave him the principal task of site selection and putting together a proposal. They looked at a lot of places and finally began to settle on the Denver area, which Archbishop J. Francis Stafford (now a Cardinal) supported as long as financial and administrative help would come from the Conference. Denver was offered to the Pope for World Youth Day 1993 and accepted.
There were lots of challenges to be dealt with: transportation of the youth to and from Denver, weather variations from extremely hot in the day time to cold at night, infrastructure in Denver, transportation to the Vigil and Mass site, lodging a half million youth and lurking behind it all, both in Rome and the U.S. was the question of whether or not any young people from the US would actually come. Archbishop Pilarczyk handed the episcopal leadership of the planning over to his Vice-President, Archbishop William H. Keeler of Baltimore who loved the “chase” so to speak and was a great help as well .
By 1993 the media in the United States had just about had enough of the Polish pope and the run-up to World Youth Day focused on how American Catholics were rejecting the Pope’s leadership on abortion, contraception, AIDS, you name it. They predicted that finally the Pope had made a bad decision in returning to the US and he would be greeted by nothing but protestors to his policies and dissent among the young. The trouble was that hard as they tried in Denver to find and interview a young attendee at WYD 93 to back up their claims of dissent, they failed. One young person after another stopped by a TV cameraperson or reporter and simply said something to the effect, “I love this Pope.” And the love affair continued.
Shepherd One, the name I had given to the Secret Service in 1979 for the Pope’s plane arrived from Rome in Denver on a spectacular afternoon in August with President and Mrs. Clinton and Chelsea waiting on the tarmac. After the airport arrival, the Holy Father and President Clinton went separately to Regis College for a private meeting that was supposed to last only thirty minutes. At the end of the time set aside, Father Roberto Tucci, SJ and I went to the door where the Pope and President were meeting, opened it slightly only to have the Pope signal that he wanted more time with the young President. At forty five minutes they still had not emerged and finally Father Tucci sent Monsignor Dziwisz, the pope’s personal secretary and now a Cardinal, in to remind both that 70,000 young people were waiting at mile high stadium to welcome the Pope. Pictures were taken, gifts exchanged, and farewells shared and the mile-high World Youth Day was underway.
After the welcome ceremony the Holy Father took an unusual day off. Taking the Presidential helicopter, Marine One, he flew up into the east range of the Rockies and spent a whole day, mostly alone, walking in the forest (the Secret Service never far away but discreetly out of sight), praying, resting, gathering his strength for the World Youth Day activities which would follow. There were very few of our staff present with him and his closest staff that day and I know he loved the beauty of the American Rocky Mountains.
Young people were streaming into Denver by the hundreds of thousands (an estimated 550,000 attended the closing Mass) and their love of the Pope and their faith was infectious, about as infectious as the burning heat on the east slope of the Rockies on a hot summer afternoon. All those “doubting Thomases” in Rome and the US could not believe what they were seeing. Contrary to popular opinion, World Youth Day 1993 in the U.S. was on its way to being a great success. And did John Paul connect with the young people or not? It was simply amazing. I was so proud of Father (he was personally made a Monsignor in the Cathedral sacristy in Denver by the Pope in front of his parents) Schnurr and his whole group for planning and staging what will probably long be remembered as one of the most successful gatherings of young people certainly in this hemisphere and/or continent and this great Pope in a long time. There have indeed been larger crowds, especially in Europe and the Philippines and some South American countries but again it is easier for the youth to gather in those places. What we did so impressed Pope John Paul II that weeks after when we dined with him in Rome to review World Youth Day, he ordered his assistant to give Archbishop Keeler, the President, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, the Vice-President, Monsignor Schnurr and myself four gold chalices, usually gifts to host bishops only. Monsignor Dziwisz presented them to us in the presence of the pope and four times said in Italian, molto prezioso which translates into “you had better not lose these!” The Holy Father still had Denver and our young people clearly on his mind and in his memory.
As he is beatified this Sunday, my mind will largely be on how effective he was with young people. They loved him. And even in his later, infirm and enfeebled years, they still loved him. Sometime after canonization, some Pope will declare John Paul a patron saint of something or other. I shall being praying that he might be declared the patron of young people. I shall never see the likes of him again in the brief time I have left and I doubt if the Church will for sometime either. I am happy that our country could make him so happy on that occasion and this time when he boarded an American Airlines 767 for home and Rome, with my own term as General Secretary drawing near an end, I thought for sure I was finished with papal trips. The Holy Father himself would refer to me as his “travel agent” in the U.S. There was now very personal recognition and a growing bond between us. Tomorrow I shall recall moments with Blessed John Paul II while I was serving as General Secretary, then the fifth installment will be reflections of our time together after he named me bishop and finally, some thoughts on his forthcoming beatification.