When Pope John Paul II chose Denver for World Youth Day 1993, skeptics were aghast. Colorado was an empty square in the middle of nowhere. A second-tier city with a Ku Klux Klan legacy, Denver was planted in the most “unchurched” region of the United States. It was more than 1,000 miles from any historic center of Catholic life. It had all the warning signs of a disaster. Critics worried that it would break the finances of Church and city. A few tens of thousands of visitors might turn up, at most.
They were wrong — and not just “wrong,” but wildly so. Denver’s Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, along with his clergy and people, opened their hearts to the world. An ocean of young people converged on the city, the crime rate dropped to nearly zero during the week, and the final papal Mass brought together as many as 750,000 pilgrims. World Youth Day profoundly changed the local Church, the city and the state. It sparked an energy that continues more than 20 years later.
The change took time. There were no miracles of the sun. No sudden spike in baptisms. No surge in Mass attendance or priestly vocations. A year after the event, some people wondered if the whole thing had just been a very big party, with some religion thrown in.
But when I arrived as Denver’s new archbishop in 1997, the spirit of the place had already come alive in dramatic ways. The local Church served as a tractor beam for scholars, teachers, seminarians, youth ministers, new apostolic communities, ministries and movements, young families and dedicated Catholics from around the country.
To put it simply: World Youth Day remade and reignited the Church in Colorado. And if a miracle could happen in Denver, the same miracle might happen — with God’s grace and a lot of work — almost anywhere else.
So much for background.
Three years ago, the Holy See asked if Philadelphia would stand as one of the possible sites for the World Meeting of Families in 2015. The memory of World Youth Day ’93 was very much on my mind. But saying “yes” had obstacles.
At the time, Philadelphia’s local Church faced massive legal issues. The morale of her priests and people had been broken by the clergy abuse scandal. The Church also had severe financial problems from years of keeping parishes, schools and ministries alive long after their real energy had died.
Yet — to the credit of Philadelphia’s deep Catholic roots — our priests and laypeople backed the idea immediately. From the start, public officials and business leaders actively committed their help. Now, this month, with as many as 17,000 visitors expected for the family congress, and roughly 1 million for the closing papal events, the economic impact for Greater Philadelphia could be as much as $400 million. More importantly for the Church, this global meeting offers a chance to renew Catholic life in the city where our nation began.
Of course, Philadelphia 2015 is a long way from Denver 1993. A mass gathering of families is different from a meeting of young adults. Colorado was largely unchurched. Pennsylvania has deep religious roots. The Church in Colorado was small and young. The Church in Philadelphia is large in numbers but older in her demographic profile. She also has a much longer legacy of social service, cultural influence, great priests and laity, and two American saints.
That history is both a strength and sometimes a burden. Philadelphia Catholics have had a deep and deeply positive impact on the shape of the Church in United States. They bore the brunt of “Know Nothing” hatred for the Church in the 19th century. They welcomed waves of America’s new immigrants.Philadelphia’s seminary formed priests and bishops for service around the country. Its Catholic schools have educated many of the region’s (and even the nation’s) leaders. And their founding by the city’s fourth bishop, St. John Neumann, created the model of Catholic parish schools for the entire country.
But a great legacy can breed habits of thought and practice that lose their force as the world changes. Today’s world is very different from even 20 years ago; but not nearly so different as the world will be 20 years from now. Marriage, family and the raising of children with a strong faith — these things are under heavy pressure today from an unfriendly culture. The future in Philadelphia and the world will have steep challenges for anyone serious about being Christian. It will need a new generation of disciples formed by joy and perseverance.
The family is where new life begins: new life for the world; new life for the nation; new life for the Church. It’s where we learn love and patience, and how to work with others in peace. Encouraging this new life is the purpose of the World Meeting of Families. It’s the reason Pope Francis is coming across an ocean to Philadelphia.
This month, the Church in Philadelphia will celebrate the joy of the family with families from across the globe. We’ll bring to it all the exuberance of a great American city; all the excitement, energy and enthusiasm we feel in our hearts. The World Meeting of Families is a moment for new beginnings and an explosion of hope. So please join us for an event that will be remembered — with delight and gratitude — for decades.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., is the archbishop of Philadelphia.