The Pope and the Kids in Denver

“The real story here is the kids, not the Pope.” It was a bishop-friend of mine speaking, in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in downtown Denver on Saturday afternoon, August 14, 1993. The lobby was a sea of cassocks, red sashes, and skull-caps, with an occasional flash of a cardinal’s purple. He was not minimizing the impact of the pilgrimage of Pope John Paul II to International Youth Day, but his remark went to the heart of things. The comments heard, time and again from Denver merchants, police, and the other locals, expressed an amazed delight at the behavior of the 170,000 or so “certifiably young” who had made a pilgrimage to their city. Well-behaved, polite, easy to deal with, happy, exuberant young Catholic believers had come to the foot of the Rockies for their day, and their leader had come to serve them. They brought their host-city’s crime rate down for the week.

As businessman Daniel Packard put it, “The young kids were healthy and happy; it was easy to move around, and the crime rate was down. If it takes the Pope to make this community liveable, then let’s ask him to move here permanently.” My bishop-friend’s contingent was not atypical. They were 700 strong, from a small, poor diocese in the West. They had washed cars and sold tacos to earn their $175 round-trip bus fares. And their baptismal grace was at work in them, the source of what the natives had observed. The event was, after all, a religious one, not just social. My friend the bishop saw in his contingent of youngsters a genuine process of conversion as the week went on. And the process continues in his meetings with them after their return home. Their desire to evangelize their peers, and their ideas about how to do so, will go with him on his upcoming ad limina visit to Rome.

The bishops’ hotel lobby was the closest I would come to the Holy Father, being — as I am — no longer “certifiably young.” Admission to all the main events (except the Mass at the cathedral with the bishops on Friday and the public outdoor Mass at Cherry Creek Parkway on Sunday) required proof that one is under 40. But being so near and yet so far had its advantages, too. Among them was the opportunity to observe the reactions of the local media. The usual inability of our news reporters to understand anything religious (which, one would think, should be a requirement for those who would report on such matters) was most evident during the televised Mass on Sunday. To unbelieving observers, a three-hour prayer, with little dramatic outward action and long periods of silence, seems boring indeed. But of course we can’t have silence on a television program — five seconds of it sends us to adjust the dials, as if the sound mechanism has suddenly failed. And so the real news was not only missed, but obscured by what the news anchors put in its place.

The real news, of course, was that 375,000 people ate the body of our Lord Jesus Christ and then went forth in peace to love and serve that same Lord. But while that astonishing event was going on, the news anchors talked about the only thing they did understand: the collapse of several thousand participants from heat exhaustion and dehydration. It was a time to blame poor organization (“Why weren’t they told to drink water?”). One commentator even charged a lack of compassion (“Granted it is far less than one percent of the crowd having problems, if even one child collapses, you’d think they’d care enough to cut this ceremony short.”)

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, coordinator of arrangements for the Archdiocese, was called upon as a witness for the defense. She pointed out, as politely as she could, one thinks, that “they” were told to drink water, but that they were, after all, adolescents. They came to a high altitude, didn’t sleep enough, didn’t eat right, pushed them-selves too hard physically, and — of course — didn’t follow advice about keeping themselves hydrated. Any parent of teenagers would understand. All the compassion and planning in the world can’t prevent their “nothing-will-happen-to-me” taking of risks with their health. As soon as Sister Mary Ann was off-camera, the anchors had to point out that, of course, she is the “spin doctor” for the Archdiocese, and paid to say what she says. One reporter even mentioned that she was well prepared to do her job, having lived in Washington for some years. Well, yes, one thought: it takes one to know one — or to think that one does.

But the dehydrated and exhausted youngsters were, for the most part, soon back on their feet. Two deaths were reported, one that of a man in his sixties whose heart failed after he had unwisely hiked 14 miles on a hot, dry day at the mile-high altitude to which he was not accustomed. The other was a Spanish woman who was ill before she came to Denver. R.I.P.

Pope John Paul II had words for and to the media on Saturday afternoon in the McNichols Sports Arena. He asked, rhetorically, who is responsible for the increasing violence in our society. Assigning partial responsibility to individuals, to families, and to society at large, he then said — to thunderous applause — “Everybody must be willing to accept their part of this responsibility, including the media.” He turned aside from his text, and with a knowing grin added, “So now the Pope is speaking out against the television that is presenting him to you.” But the moment of whimsy passed, and he said, with added emphasis, “Nevertheless, I repeat once more: including the media.”

My reflections after the event have persistently turned to my bishop-friend’s response to my disappointment over the religious state of the young Catholic adults of America. I was lamenting what I have lamented before, a sorrow which I feel over my own children and those of my friends, and, on a grand scale, my students of recent years. These young American Catholic adults, born since Vatican II, raised in Catholic families and schooled in Catholic schools, have been poorly served by the institutional Church. They have not been catechized, nor spiritually formed, nor theologically educated by those institutions on which families have to rely for help in raising children. Our children, as a result — now becoming parents of another generation — seem to see no need to live the sacramental life of the Church. They are relatively good on social justice (up to a point), and know a bit of modern psychology (including its false notions of human fulfillment and freedom). These are mixed gains over what our generation knew, but they are also things that even the pagans know. And so, instead of seeing a need to center their lives on the Eucharist and Penance, too many of our young Catholic adults quietly seem to assume that money and the things that money can buy are more real and more important.

My bishop-friend’s response to my lament was, “Yes, I am simply telling people now to move beyond them and instead focus on catechizing your grandchildren. We’ve almost lost a good part of a generation.” That advice didn’t exactly cheer me. How, I wondered, can we catechize our grandchildren when we couldn’t catechize our children? The massive cultural barriers are still in place and, indeed, more massive than ever. (I keep thinking that things can’t possibly get worse, and then they do.) The bishop had a deeper understanding than mine, however. “The culture wars are not just between our society and the Church. Our culture is now on a collision course with reality, and thus in conflict with the Church because she is standing for reality.”

That Observation brought back to mind an especially hopeful moment at a recent conference on the culture wars, organized by Ralph Mclnerny at the University of Our Lady in South Bend. Professor Charles Rice of the Law School was enthusiastically recommending the new catechism to us. Having read most of it in Spanish, he could tell us that it is not just superb for its presentation of sound Catholic doctrine in succinct form. It is, he assured us, a “tool that parents can use to catechize their own children.” Now that, I think, could solve our problem. Our children can by-pass feminist DRE’S and dissident priests. Let them catechize our grandchildren; they will catechize themselves in the process. And then we won’t have to count them a lost generation.

My bishop-friend has told his young people that their faith is wonderful and their enthusiasm contagious, but that they don’t yet know their faith adequately and must allow themselves to be catechized. May it be done so, and soon. The 1995 International Youth Day will be in Manila. May the words of the editor of the Denver Post, Gil Spencer, be as pertinent then as they were on his front page on August 16, 1993:

In John Paul II, we got few surprises. Just a man of strength and affection and peace, a rock for those of his faith. He gave us four incredible days. Thank you, John Paul, and Godspeed.`


Mary Rousseau taught philosophy at Marquette University and was a member of our Editorial Board. She passed away in 2012.

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