Faster, Higher, Stronger… in Faith

Next month, the International Olympic Committee will decide whether the 2016 Olympic Games will be held in Chicago, Rio de Janeiro, Madrid, or Tokyo. The Windy City’s Olympic bid is believed by many to have a good chance of succeeding, although others predict Rio will get the nod in order to bring the Games to South America for the first time.

Supporters of Chicago’s bid (the most ardent among them being Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley) say the Games will provide a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase the city to the world, increase tourism, and promote economic development.

Those who don’t want the Games, however, argue that it will burden the city and the entire state of Illinois with years of additional taxes and debt, displace poor and vulnerable people from their homes and places of employment, leave behind crumbling “white elephant” venues, and promote exactly the kind of pay-to-play corruption that has made Chicago and Illinois infamous.

Whatever the outcome of the Olympic bid (which we will know on Oct. 2, when the IOC meets in Copenhagen), the competition for the Games has gotten me to thinking about another world-class event that has been proven to have lasting positive effects on the communities and countries that host it: World Youth Day.

The massive biennial or triennial gatherings of Catholic young adults, created by Pope John Paul II and continued under Pope Benedict XVI, draw hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of participants to the host cities/dioceses. The concluding Mass of the 1995 WYD in Manila, which drew an estimated 4 million people, is believed to be the largest gathering of any kind in recorded history.

The first and so far only WYD ever held in the United States was in Denver in 1993. I attended the Denver gathering myself, and it was truly a life changing experience — not just because of the prescence of the pope but also because of the opportunity to experience the catholicity (with a small “c”) of the Church. Walking through the streets of Denver or on the trail to Cherry Creek State Park (site of the concluding Mass) alongside thousands of other young people all speaking different languages, trading pins and other souvenirs with them (a WYD tradition), watching a rainbow appear above Mile High Stadium just after the pope arrived, praying the rosary on the 15-hour bus ride home — all of these are cherished memories of mine.

Although WYD events themselves only last for a week or less, they often leave indelible marks on the souls of the individuals that participate. Colleen Carroll Campbell noted in the Aug. 24, 2005, edition of National Review Online that more than one-fourth of the new U.S. priests ordained in 2005 had attended a World Youth Day, and many laity cited it as a turning point in their faith life.

“‘Denver’ has become the first word in many conversion stories told by young American Catholics, who frequently cite the 1993 World Youth Day Mass at Cherry Creek State Park, where they celebrated their faith with the pope and half a million peers, as the first step toward radical life changes,” Campbell wrote. “Some gave up the obsessive quest for pleasure that had led them into promiscuity and rabid consumerism. Others discovered a passion for pro-life activism or service to the poor. Many returned to the sacraments.”

Meanwhile, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput (whose predecessor, Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, presided over the ’93 event) described some of the lasting effects of WYD on his archdiocese as of 2002:

Reporters sometimes ask me what World Youth Day “does” for a diocese. More specifically, what did it “do” for Denver in 1993? After all, people arrive, they celebrate – and then they leave. Emotional highs never last, including religious ones. Even Peter, James and John had to go back down the mountain to work after the Transfiguration. And so the skeptics turn to statistics: baptisms, Mass attendance, contributions, vocations. Do they go up after World Youth Day? Down? By how much, and for how long? And so on. You get the idea….

With World Youth Day, numbers never tell the story. Outsiders tend to think of these gatherings as a fireworks display – a few days of very entertaining light that quickly fades to black when the noise stops. That’s exactly the wrong image. World Youth Day is a seed, and like a seed, it doesn’t grow overnight. It takes time. But if the soil is good, so is the harvest.

In the months after World Youth Day 1993, no miraculous surge in faith occurred here in Denver – at least not in way that garnered many headlines. But looking back nine years later, the Church in northern Colorado is dramatically different. God’s done extraordinary things in the lives of our people, and the evidence is all around us in our parishes, our schools, and in our seminaries, which are literally running out of room for candidates.
I said “seminaries,” not seminary, for a reason. We have two seminaries for the Archdiocese of Denver, and both are very much part of the renewal that began here after World Youth Day….

Over the past nine years…  many wonderful renewal communities and movements have found a home or deepened their presence in Denver — the Christian Life Movement, the Community of the Beatitudes, the Marian Community of Reconciliation, along with Cursillo, the charismatic renewal, Focolare, Communion and Liberation, and others. All of them root themselves in Vatican II. All of them have helped the faith flourish here in the Rockies. And all of them, for our local Church, are part of the legacy of World Youth Day.

Even the most notorious liturgical gaffe of the Denver gathering — the choice of a woman to play Christ in a dramatization of the Way of the Cross — had lasting effects which many readers of this blog would probably consider to have been for the better overall. According to Raymond Arroyo’s biography of Mother Angelica, that event prompted Mother to proclaim that she was “tired of (the) liberal Church in America”, return her community to its pre-Vatican II style of habit, and place greater emphasis on orthodox teaching and traditional forms of liturgy and devotion in the programming carried on her Eternal Word Television Network.

Olympic bid supporters in Chicago like to point to the possibilities for urban renewal and economic expansion that such an event may bring with it. Considering that, according to a just released survey, two-thirds of Catholics in the Chicago Archdiocese no longer attend Mass regularly, I would say the Archdiocese urgently needs spiritual renewal as well. The same is probably true of many sees in the U.S. For that reason, the world-class event I would most like to see brought to Chicago, or for that matter anywhere in the U.S., is World Youth Day.

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