Inspirations of Evangelism to the Youths

Denver Catholics nurture seeds of change 10 years after papal visit
Aug 11, 2003 06:03 PM EDT

On a Sunday morning a decade ago, Pope John Paul II stood on a stage the size of a football field in Denver's Cherry Creek State Park and urged the crowd of more than 500,000 to embrace his vision of evangelism for a new millennium.

The setting was World Youth Day, a Catholic Woodstock that thrust Denver into the international spotlight for four days in August.

The elderly pontiff challenged the modern world's "culture of death" and urged youths from around the world to preach the gospel "from the rooftops."

Alicia Oletski, then a 16-year-old Lakewood student, was among the masses. Soon afterward, she was fixing up houses for Iowa flood victims. In college, she chose to become a social worker, which felt like a manifestation of her faith.

Jose Saenz was there, too, with a blanket and a backpack. He was 31 then. He's a seminarian now. He said he probably would have become a priest anyway but that his experience as a pilgrim confirmed his call.

As celebrations marking the 10th anniversary of World Youth Day unfold this week, its legacy can be seen on several fronts, church officials say: increased interest in religious vocations, strengthened parish youth groups and an influx of lay-led Catholic renewal groups.

A papal biographer, George Weigel, calls Denver "arguably the most vibrant local church in the country today," in large part because of World Youth Day.

But in the larger scheme of things, beyond the church, the repercussions are harder to measure.

A decade ago, the pope spoke against genocide, ethnic cleansing and abortion. Ten years later, given Columbine, the Sept. 11 attacks, war and religious unrest, is that "culture of death" any less prevalent?

"It really showed there is hope for the future, for church and nonchurch people," said Tom Reynolds, vice president for mission and student development at Denver's Regis University, a Jesuit school. "I do think that message has made an impression on young people. Not that they've totally turned it around, but there are a lot more young people who are actively aware of those issues."

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput cautioned against searching for cause and effect with World Youth Day because such things are impossible to measure.

But he said he believes it helped call men to the priesthood, boosted the confidence of the local church and put Denver on the Catholic map. Chaput, who became Denver archbishop four years after World Youth Day, said the "new evangelism" the pope sought marks an important evolution in the church.

"The evangelists the pope is calling for are different in the sense that they're not priests and religious," said Chaput, the spiritual leader of 368,000 registered Catholics in 24 northern Colorado counties. "He's calling the laity. The young are evangelizing the old, as opposed to the old approach of the old evangelizing the young."

Denver on display

John Paul II established World Youth Day in 1986 as a biannual gathering to energize Catholic youths. He chose Denver over Minneapolis and Buffalo, N.Y., for the first-ever observance in the United States. The pope called Denver a "symbolic destination," a "modern metropolis" amid natural beauty.

Unlike previous sites, it was not a historic Catholic center. Many Catholic leaders questioned whether a U.S. event would work because of the large number of "cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose parts of the faith to practice, or who oppose church teachings on abortion, birth control and the celibate male priesthood.

Saenz, one of 200,000 registrants, was there every step of the way: watching the papal helicopter land to thunderous applause at Mile High Stadium, trekking from downtown to Cherry Creek State Park with other pilgrims, wedged in with the largest crowd in state history at the Sunday Mass.

Saenz was a maintenance worker at an Aurora apartment complex. He was active in his youth group at St. James parish in Denver. He'd always thought about the priesthood.

"The pope's message was, 'Be not afraid,"' Saenz said. "That's what gave me the courage to say, 'Yes, I am going to carry out my vocation."'

Now, Saenz is one year away from completing studies at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver, which opened in 1999.

Eight years ago, when the more liberal-minded St. Thomas Seminary closed in Denver, 29 men were studying for the priesthood. As of last spring, more than 70 were enrolled at St. John Vianney and Redemptoris Mater seminary.

That second, smaller seminary, which focuses on international missions, opened as a direct result of World Youth Day. It's run by the Neocatechumenal Way, a Spanish missionary movement founded in the 1960s that was introduced to Denver through World Youth Day and Chaput's predecessor, J. Francis Stafford.

Other lay-driven renewal groups have since put down roots in Denver: the Christian Life Movement, Families of Nazareth, Community of the Beatitudes. The groups adhere to church teachings rather than challenge them, and stress spiritual growth, community and service.

Such developments led Crisis, a conservative Catholic magazine, to declare Denver "the future of Catholicism." To some local Catholics, that's not a good thing.

John Kane, a religious studies professor at Regis University and editor of Leaven, a progressive Catholic newspaper, credited World Youth Day for renewing interest in religion and spirituality among young people.

But he said he thinks the event, championed by a conservative pope, made the diocese more conservative.

"My sense is it's one of the things that has contributed to a more monolithic sense of the church in this diocese," Kane said. "It helped cut off what I view as legitimate diversity and discussions in the church."

By most accounts, Catholic youth ministries have flourished since World Youth Day. Most Denver-area parishes now have volunteer or paid staff who minister to youths.

Monsignor Ed Buelt, the archdiocese's point man for World Youth Day, said young people are assuming greater responsibility in parishes as a result of the event. At his parish, Our Lady of Loreto in Foxfield, young people are the greeters before Mass.

Changes hard to quantify

Oletski, the pilgrim who became a social worker, said the experience helped deepen her faith and made her realize she is not alone in her faith.

She heard the pope's call to evangelize, "but I'm not really comfortable expressing it in words, but in actions." Volunteering with the Metro Denver Gang Coalition is her way of shouting from the rooftops.

Reflecting on whether the "culture of death" has changed, Mimi Eckstein, director of the Denver archdiocese's Respect Life office, said she sees progress despite events such as the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the fatal shootings at Columbine High School.

She said Oregon's enactment of the nation's first assisted-suicide law in 1997 was supposed to trigger similar laws nationwide, but that hasn't happened.

World Youth Day, she and others say, was about personal conversion, which is hard to quantify.

"Are we now a better world?" asked the Rev. Bob Schlageter, director of campus ministries at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. "I know there are a lot of better people because of these gatherings of young people.

"Is it heaven on Earth? No. We'd be naive to think that. But maybe there are those responding to hate and violence in a much more positive way."