Twenty years ago, my life was deeply changed by a single trip, only I didn't know it. My first World Youth Day experience was - holy cow- twenty years ago in Denver, in 1993. I joined a group of two dozen pilgrims and we drove from Jersey to Colorado over the course of three long, grueling days in three large vans. We were all young and relatively "poor", and I remember we were supposed to budget $5 each day for breakfast and lunch, and $7 for dinner. Some of us didn't have that much. We stayed at hotels you wouldn't let your mother walk into, and we slept two to a bed. Good thing I knew most of the folks really well, because that could have been an even more brutal reality than it actually was.
We stayed in motel 6s and motel 8s. We had to change rooms several times because of dirt, and bugs, and omg - underwear made up into the bed sheets. We ate at Denny's and Bob Evans and Shoney's... biscuits and gravy, completely foreign to a northeast palate, and overcooked burgers, and lots of fries. We drove 13 hours a day. We had a tire blow out in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Kansas in the middle of flat, monotonous fields. It's amazing how quickly the happy joy of sunflowers fades... I was driving the van "behind" the one that got a blown out tire, and I remember the sensation of a cold hand around my heart as the fifteen passenger van in front of me swerved to and fro and wove its way to the curb. I was done driving.
We lived on snack cakes and sports drinks and very little healthy food. We laughed and prayed and got headaches and sang, and sang and sang. I remember two of the women trading off seats in the "way back" on top of a cushion of suitcases, pillows and duffel bags, actually managing to pull out a guitar and entertain us. I remember a lot of card games.
We stayed in Colorado Springs, at a campus of small hotel bungalows. Our van got broken into one night, and we lost hundreds of dollars of expensive fishing equipment some of the guys had brought, and my backpack, along with all my cash, some favorite books and toiletries. Young and with no cash flow, I had to put several group meals on my credit card and ask people to pay me cash instead, so I would have some.
Events at WYD were crowded, loud, teeming with smiling Americans and people from around the world. The smaller exhibits and artists and faith talks were varied, and many really great. But the two stand out events were, of course, the opening welcome for Pope John Paul II, and the vigil with him.
We paraded up the long ramps at Mile High Stadium. The crowd was pulsing with excitement. The sun was strong, and the air was thin. Dana, an Irish musician, sang the song she had written for this event and we all joined in "We Are One Body"... maybe the only WYD song that has lasted past its event. Helicopters began to appear out of the bright blue sky. The crowd cheered, louder, louder...
Finally, John Paul II was being driven in the popemobile around the inner track. I remember the crowd surging forward- we were only a couple dozen feet away! I remember thinking as we strained to catch a glimpse, to get close that it must have been what happened when Jesus walked in the cities. I remember seeing people cry joyfully, and feeling tears on my own face. It was a memorable beginning, a significant moment, a historical one.
But just a few days later came THE event. The vigil.
We walked, and walked, and walked with everything we owned on our backs. In the hot Denver sun, with the thin air of the mile high city, we schlepped several miles from the vans to the field, past hundreds of spectators, past hundreds of porta johns, past rows of food kiosks, sponsored by McDonalds... how American can you get? We found our assigned, roped off square. I don't know how we got such a great spot. We were dead center, and not far off from the main stage. We set up sleeping bags and changed tshirts under our clothing, and started talking to passers by.Eventually it was evening, and the night became electric as the pope stood on stage to speak to us.
I do remember crowding around a handful of transistor radios, hoping to hear the English version of whatever was being said. John Paul II's facility with languages allowed him to seamlessly transition from language to language, never repeating what he had said before, welcoming all who were there as familiarly as he could. I remember hearing rumors about teens in the woods ignoring the reason they were there - clearly abandoned by exhausted chaperones- the rumors were awful. But we had not journeyed to get away, looking for freedom from parents and home. We were looking for a freedom that was much, much more real... and we could hear the truth echo in that sweet Polish voice.
I don't remember what he said. I don't remember.
I have since read the words, read the speech. Words matter. The work and meaning and crafting of that speech matters. And yet, it didn't.
What really mattered is that we heard Love. We heard a voice calling - I would say, our baptismal calling being restated, re"sung" in a sense to the ears of our hearts. We were teens and young adults barely out of our teens, and we heard that we mattered and not just that we mattered, but that the Church was us... not some old men, not our parents, not a special group or accomplished club, but us - all those people too, and all of US. And I still am moved to tears, if I am honest, just thinking about the end of that speech. Thinking about John Paul II, cane in hand, being escorted off the stage. And half a million young people chanting in very close unison, in solidarity, in community : JOHN PAUL II - We Love You!
It lasted for minutes, this chant, this cry, this thank you for being Jesus to us, and for not turning his back on the young people, the women at the well, the tax collectors, the Marthas.
The crowd stirred in surprise, and hushed. The pope had returned to the stage, to the mike. We quieted. He spoke in a slightly shaky, but determined voice: John Paul II - HE LOVES YOU!
***my heart breaks***
There is so much more to this story. The night of freezing on that field after a full day's sun. The heartaches of unrequited love from guys you're flirting with, and the difficulty of watching your friends in love, the exhaustion and weariness of travel, the several people in our group who, like hundreds of others, suffered altitude sickness there and on the way home. The solitude that can happen in a large group, the long ride home.
But what really happened... what really happened that day for me - was that I heard the voice of Jesus whisper in my heart. A seed was planted that took root and grew in me for many years to come. I fully believe, though I could only see it in hindsight, that that WYD in Denver is where I was given the call as an adult to serve the Church. That is where I received the seed of a gift - to share myself authentically, to desire to learn more, to lead others, to love. That seed sprouted into my work with young adults, even informally, my youth ministry, my masters degree, the call to the doctoral program and beyond. That seed is the voice of one like Jesus who cried aloud for all to hear "I love YOU" and who whispers, even now, into my heart: Do not be afraid.