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As we gather late this afternoon for the celebration of the 20th anniversary of World Youth Day (WYD), and as I prayed today, so many memories flooded my mind and my heart. First, the memory of the question “Is WYD going to come to Denver?” At first six cities were possible, and it was narrowed down to three. Then the announcement came that it was to be Denver.
Then Archbishop Stafford had the courage and the vision, the trust and confidence in God, to say “yes” to the invitation. Little did he, or any of us, know the impact it would have on the Archdiocese of Denver, the United States and on the world. At that time, then Father Edward Buelt was appointed as the archdiocesan coordinator to work together with Rome, the USCCB and the local church in the details to put WYD together for our archdiocese. Then Father Glenn, who was Archbishop’s Stafford’s secretary, also had many tasks. I had the small task of planning and preparing the liturgies that the Holy Father would celebrate.
As Cardinal Stafford noted in his reflections on WYD, there was great “wringing of hands” and pessimism as to how many people would really come. Certainly, as noted by Msgr. Buelt, the media knew little of pilgrimages and what a pilgrimage is. The numbers projected to attend were pessimistic. Some said only 20,000. It reminded me of those on my own staff who thought we would have but only one or two hundred here today. I told them not to worry. I said I am certain that the faithful of Denver will attend and participate.
The final registration for WYD was well over 500,000, and with the walk-ins at the closing Mass there were over 750,000 present. Many of us remember it well. I asked a few of the seminarians who are serving tonight how old they were 20 years ago. One said, “Four, and I don’t remember a whole lot.” Yet one can never forget the aerial views of Mile High Stadium for the welcome of the Holy Father, or of Cherry Creek for the closing Mass.
In the midst of the “summer of violence,” which only increased the “wringing of hands,” all violence ceased on the arrival of now-Blessed John Paul II, soon to be Saint John Paul the Great. There was no major crime during those days and no violent crime.
I can remember at the conclusion of WYD, leaving the hotel (because I had to move out of the Cathedral since the Holy Father was living at the Cathedral), and one of the clerks called me over and he said: “Father, I know that you had a lot to do with this, and I just want to compliment you and all of the young people. My staff was anxious for WYD. We knew there would be primarily young people staying in this hotel and we were fearful. I just want you to know that they were the most respectful, kind, courteous group we have ever had in this hotel.” He said he would take them over any convention any day, and to tell them that they can all come back next year.
WYD is truly a blessing, it is truly a gift that has graced our Archdiocese and has graced the world. Pope John Paul II as he celebrated the closing Mass spoke these words to the pilgrims:
“You, young pilgrims, have also shown that you understand that Christ’s gift of Life is not for you alone. You have become more conscious of your vocation and mission in the Church and in the world. For me, our meeting has been a deep and moving experience of your faith in Christ, and I make my own the words of Saint Paul: "I have great confidence in you, I have great pride in you; I am filled with encouragement, I am overflowing with joy" (2Cor 7:4).
These are not words of empty praise. I am confident that you have grasped the scale of the challenge that lies before you, and that you will have the wisdom and courage to meet that challenge. So much depends on you.”
Certainly when John Paul II began WYD, he probably had no idea what it would be like, of the gathering in Manila with 5 million or the gathering in Rio of over 3 million.
The incredible blessing and his words of encouragement, of faith, were repeated in different but similar words by Pope Francis just a couple weeks ago in Rio. He told the young people, “I came to strengthen your faith as the Bishop of Rome, but you have strengthened my faith. You fill me with joy.” And he reminded the young people as John Paul II did, “Go and make disciples of all nations.”
Pope Francis proclaimed these words at the closing Mass in Rio:
“‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’ With these words, Jesus is speaking to each one of us, saying: ‘It was wonderful to take part in World Youth Day, to live the faith together with young people from the four corners of the earth, but now you must go, now you must pass on this experience to others.’”
“Where does Jesus send us? There are no borders, no limits: he sends us to everyone. The Gospel is for everyone, not just for some. It is not only for those who seem closer to us, more receptive, more welcoming. It is for everyone. Do not be afraid to go and to bring Christ into every area of life, to the fringes of society, even to those who seem farthest away, most indifferent. The Lord seeks all, he wants everyone to feel the warmth of his mercy and his love….Do not be afraid. When we go to proclaim Christ it is he himself who goes before us and guides us.”
It is precisely that which we see within our own Archdiocese: the incredible blessing of WYD and what was accomplished by the grace of God and through the cooperative wills of Archbishop Stafford and Archbishop Chaput, my predecessors, in promoting the New Evangelization.
As I reflected upon this, I find it amazing and wondrous and certainly a sign of the grace of the Father at what has happened in our archdiocese. Since WYD 1993, we see two new seminaries, we see the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS), we see the Augustine Institute, we see Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women (ENDOW), we see the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (C.A.L.L.), we see Centro San Juan Diego and we see Christ in the City and so many other fruits!
We see too the ecclesial movements that have arrived here: the Neocatechumenal Way, the Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, Communion and Liberation, and Opus Dei and so many new religious orders. It is truly wondrous when you reflect on what has been the grace of God poured out upon us in the Church of Northern Colorado. In our humility we can only lift up our hearts and recognize the blessings that the Lord has bestowed so generously upon us.
Today as we celebrate the Solemnity of the Assumption we are reminded in the Gospel of Mary and her unique role in salvation history. In one of my catechetical sessions in Rio, one of the young people asked me, “Why does the Church honor Mary?” It was an honest question and the young person truly wanted to know. I very simply told him, because it was with her “yes,” her cooperation with the Father, that Jesus truly became man. And I recalled in my own heart and mind the words of St. Bernard in that beautiful poetry that he wrote of how he waits for Mary and all creation waits for Mary to say “yes,” to cooperate with the will of the Father. We often forget that she was a finite human being like us. She had no pre-knowledge, but she trusted and surrendered herself completely. And Elizabeth recognizes that trust, “Blessed are you who believed that was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
In this Year of Faith we too are called to the same faith, to put our trust and confidence in all of the promises that have been given to us by our God. We know that in Mary’s heart she truly had to have questioned the promise given to her as she stood at the foot of the Cross watching the intense suffering of her Son.
In his homily today for this Solemnity, Pope Francis reminded us that “Mary also experienced the martyrdom of the Cross: the martyrdom of her heart, the martyrdom of her soul. She lived her Son’s Passion to the depths of her soul. She was fully united to him in his death, and so she was given the gift of Resurrection. Christ is the first fruits from the dead, and Mary is the first of the redeemed, the first of ‘those who are in Christ.’ She is our Mother, but we can also say that she is our representative, our sister, our eldest sister, she is the first of the redeemed, who has arrived in heaven.”
That is the great truth that we celebrate today, that we truly believe when we pray in the words of the Creed: “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead,” “the resurrection of the body,” that we are convinced in our hearts that in Christ we will one day be raised up. And our bodies will be changed to be like his and Mary’s! You can see Mary’s tender love and her deep concern for humanity. You can see the humility of Mary, the same humility to which we are called, as she proclaims her Magnificat: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She realizes how little she is, that it is not about her, but it is about her Son, Jesus Christ. Her last words spoken in the Gospel are the words, “Do whatever he tells you.” She understands her mission and her role is always to point to Jesus, never to herself.
In the first reading, we hear of the battle between good and evil, between life and death, between heaven and hell. We know that the victory is in Jesus Christ. It is important for us to understand how much Mary is with us throughout history in this great battle. I think back to her most profound apparition in Mexico City—at that time Tepeyac—in 1531 in which she left the gift of her own image, an image that is nearing 500 years old, on a tilma that should have been decomposed and destroyed centuries ago. The miracle continues; she still calls out to us as she called out to Juan Diego. She calls us “my little one,” “my son,” “my daughter.” When we gaze upon that tilma we see the tenderness of her love and we see how much she desires us to know her Son.
The whole purpose of building a church at the site of the apparition was to glorify her Son, Jesus Christ and to call the people of America to conversion. That vision, that apparition, that gift took place 200 years before the United States was founded. We, too, are called to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Mary’s heart was filled with tender love. We, too, are called to have receptive hearts. In a few minutes I will pray the prayer over the gifts and I ask you to listen attentively to that prayer. You will hear the words, “may our hearts, aflame with the fire of love, constantly long for you.” Let that prayer penetrate your soul and heart and become personally your own.
My beloved brothers and sisters, my sons and daughters, the greatest hunger of Blessed John Paul II, the greatest hunger of Pope Emeritus Benedict, and the greatest hunger of Pope Francis, is the greatest hunger of Mary: that our hearts, aflame with the fire of love, constantly long for the Father and for union with the Father.
As we continue with Mass, I encourage us first through the intercession of Mary to pray that we may encounter Jesus ever more intimately. I encourage you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for a heart more receptive to the Father, to Jesus, and to the Holy Spirit. Pray for an increase in love, to enter into the communion of love and light of the Trinity. Pray to have a heart like Mary, open, cooperative and receptive.
Second, let us also lift up our hearts in gratitude to the Father for the gift of WYD 1993 and all the fruit it has borne in the New Evangelization. It was far beyond anyone’s imagining. God is faithful to his promises when we are faithful to him. May the words of Elizabeth burn within our own hearts, may the words of Elizabeth be addressed to each one of you: “Blessed are you who trusted that the Lord’s promise to you would be fulfilled.” And let us pray for faithfulness to Jesus, to the Church, to Her teachings, and to Her mission as we lift our hearts in gratitude.
Finally, let us listen to the words of Blessed John Paul II to close, for they are still valid today and for every generation especially in the light of the battles we face between good and evil, between a culture of life and a culture of death, and all the social battles that are taking place, whether it be for the unborn, the poor, the elderly, or the immigrant, whether it be for the true understanding of marriage and the family, or whether it be for religious freedom and the freedom of conscience and so many other battles that are present. He told us twenty years ago and he speaks to us today with my voice:
“This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops. Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living, in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern 'metropolis'. It is you who must 'go out into the byroads' and invite everyone you meet to the banquet which God has prepared for his people. The Gospel must not be kept hidden because of fear or indifference. It was never meant to be hidden away in private. It has to be put on a stand so that people may see its light and give praise to our heavenly Father.”
May those words continue to be fulfilled, and may Jesus Christ be praised each day, in season and out of season. God bless you.