Mile-High Memories

In August 1993, David Letterman moved from his TV home on NBC to CBS, pitcher Nolan Ryan got his 324th and final win, and in Denver, Colo., hundreds of thousands of Catholic pilgrims from around the globe converged for World Youth Day.

As the first World Youth Day in North America and the first in an English-speaking nation, the Aug. 11-15 event is regarded as groundbreaking. From the heights of the Mile-High City, the world witnessed Blessed John Paul II’s endearing love for the young people of the Church, and, in turn, their love for him.

It would be the model for future World Youth Days, including last month’s event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Before 1993, World Youth Day largely consisted of two days — a Saturday night vigil and a Sunday Mass with the pope. Now, the event is a weeklong opportunity for prayer, celebration, fellowship and catechesis, with the pope present for several days.

Those involved in youth ministry in the United States point to Denver as a watershed event in the way the Church now approaches its work with young people (see sidebar).

Following is a look at how that seminal event in the Colorado Rockies influenced the lives of several Catholics.

The pilgrim

WYD Elliott
Leslie Elliott (left) at the 2011 World Youth Day in Madrid. Photo courtesy of Leslie Elliott

That week in August certainly had an effect on Leslie Elliott, the director of music and liturgy at Holy Innocents Church in Victorville, Calif. Then 15, Elliott traveled to Denver with her home parish, Our Lady of the Desert in Apple Valley, Calif.

“The preparation for World Youth Day and the experience of the week itself really changed me, my worldview and my experience of Catholicism,” she told Our Sunday Visitor.

She remembers the thousands of fellow pilgrims from around the world whom she met with big hugs and even bigger smiles. She recalls the thunderous roar of “John Paul II, we love you!” as the pope arrived at Mile High Stadium. While Denver was Elliott’s first World Youth Day, it wasn’t her last. She attended Toronto in 2002 and Madrid in 2011, this time leading a group of young pilgrims.

Elliott, who has served as a World Youth Day coordinator for a neighboring parish, said that each World Youth Day has helped her better understand her vocation.

“They have helped me to have a deeper sense of hope and trust in God’s plan for me,” she said.

The marriage

In June 1993, Steve Kerekes was just graduating from college with degrees in mathematics and aviation. At the time, he was praying for direction on what to do next with his life, and he says that God answered.

“I woke up one morning with a clear response to my prayer,” Kerekes told OSV. “God was telling me to go to World Youth Day in Denver and there my mission in life would begin. I arrived on Wednesday, Aug. 11, and the very first person I met was a beautiful girl named Nicole. She happened to be moving to Crested Butte, Colo., the same town I had just moved to recently after graduating. We fell in love, got married and, 19 years later, we have eight children.”

Nicole Kerekes said that after meeting him, she knew Steve was going to be a special person in her life.

“After spending just a few days together, I felt like I had known him my whole life and that we were made for each other. We were both ready to give everything to God and his mission for us,” she said. “Steve proposed to me with these words: ‘I can’t promise you anything in this life, but as long as we have Jesus, we will have everything.’”

After Denver, the couple moved to San Diego, where Steve began teaching high school. He also organized pilgrimages to World Youth Days for his students. This eventually grew into a full-time ministry called JMJ Youth. The Kerekeses plan all the logistical details of a group’s WYD journey from start to finish and provide dynamic faith-filled leaders to guide each group.

“Our mission is to catechize, evangelize and change lives,” said Steve, who several years ago began as a digital billboard about World Youth Day.

Nicole said that not only was it a wonderful opportunity to be part of Denver, but it also has been a great blessing to take part in all the World Youth Days over the years.

“We have been able to see it transform so many lives,” she said. “Our children have grown up watching the example of many young people in love with Christ and his Church.”

The organizer

Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr of Cincinnati remembers the day when he was asked to head up the coordination of World Youth Day in Denver. He was serving as the associate general secretary for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the early 1990s.

“The president of the USCCB at that time, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk, came to me and said that the Holy See wanted us to host World Youth Day and you are going to do the coordination,” he told OSV. “To which I quickly responded, ‘You have the wrong person.’ I told him that I knew very little about youth ministry.”

After a week of prayer, he humbly accepted his assignment. It would be a project that would take 18 months of long days and much hard work.

“We had to put together a program that would house and feed 500,000 young people who would be descending on Denver,” he said.

Interestingly, Denver was the first time that the Vatican had gone through a bishops’ conference to plan a World Youth Day. According to the archbishop, before 1993, Blessed John Paul II would simply designate a site.

When August 1993 arrived, the archbishop couldn’t believe the results.

“As familiar as I was with every detail of what was going to happen, I knew that the event would take on a life of its own,” he said. “In the end, the truth of the matter is that the Holy Spirit had taken over. The event was more inspiring and more uplifting than I could have ever imagined.”

Pope John Paul’s relationship with the youth was what touched the archbishop the most. He remembered the way the pontiff was very much a father figure to the youth.

“He knew how to deliver a very strong message to the young people, and he could do it in a way that they could sense his love for them,” Archbishop Schnurr said. “The pope was energized by the young people and the young people were energized by him.”

WYD Denver
A crowd of 500,000 crams into Cherry Creek State Park for the closing Mass with Pope John Paul. CNS photo

This was quite apparent during the Saturday night vigil as World Youth Day was coming to a close. “We had scheduled the Holy Father to leave the stage around 10:30, but we couldn’t get him off the stage until 11:15,” Archbishop Schnurr said.

World Youth Day in Denver laid the foundation for the way in which future World Youth Days would be organized, Archbishop Schnurr said. “The reason the Holy Father wanted World Youth Day in the U.S. was that by 1993 the pope was surprised by how popular the event had become,” Archbishop Schnurr said. “He wanted it to be more organized, and he knew that the United States is known for its organization and [for being] the media capital of the world.”

The scholastic

Eric Ramirez was a seventh-grader when he arrived in Denver from Texas using a bus ticket acquired from, among other things, selling frozen casseroles to his fellow parishioners after Mass. It was a 14-hour ride for his group from its church to the hall of a Denver Methodist church.

“One memory that I have is that we were given a small wooden cross that was the sign of our pilgrimage and which was going to be blessed by John Paul II at the end of the Mass,” Ramirez said.

His recollections of Pope John Paul have remained strong — in particular the pontiff’s arrival via helicopter at Mile High Stadium.

“When the helicopter landed there was so much enthusiasm in the crowd,” Ramirez said. “He then came driving along in his popemobile and we got very close to him as he came our way and blessed us.”

Like Archbishop Schnurr, Ramirez was struck by the pontiff’s energy.

“His love of the Church, and particularly the youth, kindled fires within the hearts of everyone present. I know that the fire was kindled in me.”

Today Ramirez is a Jesuit scholastic and is one year away from being ordained a deacon. While he noted that he was not discerning the priesthood in 1993, Denver did open his eyes to the possibility.

“Reflecting on my time at World Youth Day, I think I saw the Church in her youth, her energy and her great potential,” he said. “I found that attractive. Since then I have had a great desire to devote myself to bringing that potential to life.” 

Eddie O’Neill writes from Missouri.

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