Ten years ago on August 15, 1993, Pope John Paul II summoned the youth of the world to a pilgrimage in the peculiar location of Denver, Colo., in the heart of the United States.
This modern metropolis had no ancient shrines (like the previous gathering at Buenos Aires), nor buried apostles (like Santiago de Compestela), nor miraculous images of the Madonna (as in Czestochowa) but the Pope, anticipating the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, recalled in his invitation to the young people the words of the prophet Isaiah: “It shall come to pass in the latter days, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it and many people shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths (2:2-3).’”
Meanwhile, in another contemporary city of the United States known as the “Holy City,” the bishop of the Diocese of Charleston rallied the youth of his diocese, through their pastors and the vicar for youth, to join their peers from throughout the world and to make the trek to Colorado.
Dozens upon dozens responded, from North Augusta to Greenville, to Rock Hill, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head, from Florence to Aiken, from Columbia (including myself and three others from St. Joseph Parish) to Mount Pleasant. Across the Palmetto State, young Catholics responded.
They were ready to travel, learn, pray and be renewed. South Carolina was going on pilgrimage to Denver to be with the pope and the world.
At this gathering, the Vicar of Christ, standing in front of a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, would call the young people present the breathing shrines and living apostles of the eighth World Youth Day.
He would call their time together “a celebration of life” and tell those present that “the liberating message of the Gospel of life has been put in your hands.”
From throughout the world, 186,000 youth registered and over 600,000 were present for the concluding Mass at Cherry Creek State Park on the Solemnity of Our Lady’s Assumption. Youth from the persecuted church in China, the Sudan and Indonesia were present to tell their story. Believers from a recently freed church in Mexico could finally sing aloud publicly the religious songs of their ancestors. Young people from the former Eastern Bloc could tell of communism and of the religious reforms going on in their countries.
From Latin America, Africa, Asia, Oceania, pilgrims came and remembered, shared and worshiped together. A teenager from Greer, S.C., slapped the hand of a young person from Mexico.
The story of a pilgrim from Nigeria was heard by a pilgrim from Columbia, S.C. Europe’s new evangelization was discussed by German, French and American youth.
These are the Denver tales that Chaucer could not write and that the world without the Gospel will never understand. It was (and is) the mystery of the full church lived in the midst of the modern metropolis and contemporary ethos of our world, seeking her Lord and his message. The pope would tell those present that after the World Youth Day, “Christ needs you to enlighten the world and show it the path of life.”
The pope would emphasize that Christians cannot be ashamed of the Gospel, that now was not the time for the Gospel to be kept hidden “because of fear or indifference.”
He encouraged all to go to the streets and public places and to preach the Gospel. He exhorted everyone: “Woe to you if you do not succeed in defending life.”
As the celebrations came to a close and the Pope was preparing to leave, he would say in a heartfelt manner to the young people: “For me, our meeting has been a deep and moving experience of your faith in Christ, and I make my own the words of St. Paul: ‘I have great confidence in you, I have great pride in you; I am filled with encouragement, I am overflowing with joy (2 Cor 7:4).’” After the Holy Father left, everyone began to prepare themselves to go home.
The group from South Carolina headed back as lively as they had come but for different reasons and for a different person. We had all come together for that week to see the church and the pope — and Colorado.
Many of us had never been out west, and that, combined with seeing the world reflected in the enfleshed church, was a great source of conversion and a call to each of us to seek more urgently the face of Christ.
Since Denver, some of us have kept in touch. Most of us have gone to college, the military and vocational training. Many are established in their fields of communications, education, engineering, service industries, medicine, business, law — and the list continues. Some have married and have children. I’m in the seminary and maybe some will join me here. But each of us remembers the change and the joy of the World Youth Day of 1993.
So much happened there, so much has happened since. It has been a decade since Denver.
Jeff Kirby is a seminarian of the Diocese of Charleston. Fellow pilgrims from Denver can write him at: North American College, 00120 Vatican City State, Europe. A directory and “Denver Update” is being created for the group.