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To be young, Catholic and cool.

DENVER -- It probably won't go down in the World Youth Day '93 history books, but those who witnessed it are likely never to forget it.

Picture this: Several Catholic bishops, decked out in their neatly pressed black and fuchsia ceremonial garb, gleefully doing the "wave" in Denver's Mile High Stadium. This, just moments before the pope's formal welcome.

The intense enthusiasm of the several thousand young people, who converged on Denver recently, transcended the mixture of races, cultures and generations among them.

Being Catholic for many WYD participants took on a new dimension. In their words, it became "cool."

Consider, for instance, the line for a free rosary running neck and neck with long lines for fast food. The new fashion craze: Styrofoam papal miters and T-shirts spouting religious sentiments -- "Life is short. Pray hard." And among the most popular pastimes: saying prayers and singing religious songs on street corners, in parks or anywhere else the spirit moved them.

If they could pack up and take back home what was making them feel so good about religion, many said they would.

"I'll be honest with you, I was really getting bored with church. People just think of church as a place you go and sit for an hour on Sundays and leave," said 15-year-old Heather Farley, president of the youth group at a Catholic church in Arlington, Va. "I would like to see the energy and enthusiasm that was here spread around."

What brought many of these young pilgrims and the president of the United States to Denver was the opportunity to see or meet Pope John Paul Il for the first time. President Bill Clinton greeted the pope warmly upon his arrival at Stapleton International Airport.

In exchange, the pope also extended warm greetings to the "young" president, right before landing what some considered his first gentle but unyielding political punch. "If we want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life," the pope urged in opening address, expounding on the church's pro-life stance.

During his four-day visit, the pope issued stern lectures on some of the problems and challenges facing society and the modern church.

He touched briefly or the issue of pedophilia among Catholic priests -- a sore spot for the U.S. Catholic church, now reeling from rampant claims of sexual abuse leveled against it in recent years. "I have written to the bishops of the United States about the pain of the suffering and scandal caused by the sins of some ministers of the altar," the pope said in a speech before 17,000 members of the Denver archdiocese. "While every human means for responding to this evil must be implemented, we cannot forget that the first and most important means is prayer: ardent, humble, confident prayer."

When the pope wasn't preaching or lecturing to the youthful multitude, he was certainly wooing them. With aged robustness, the pope worked the crowds like a skilled politician -- blessing forebeads, shaking hands and kissing checks. Many said it was his quick wit and charisma that won them over. At every stop, they pushed, crawled and climbed for the chance to see or touch him.

Local police -- out in full force on bicycles, horses and foot -- marveled at the peacefulness of the large gathering of young people. The harmonious blending of cultures, languages and customs was a marked contrast to the crime and violence more commonplace in major cities throughout the United States. In Denver, the surge of random killings and assorted shootings among young people prompted the state's governor recently to call a special legislative session.

For most WYD participants (some from as far away as Africa and Australia), the world's problems seemed to play little part in their raison d'etre in Denver. Their animated and carefree spirit throughout the four-day event led one observer to refer to the gathering as a spiritual Woodstock, "with all the virtues and none of the vices."

Many, when asked, were eager to express their differing views on such topics as abortion, the married priesthood and women's ordination.

"The church is too closed-minded when it comes to some things like women's ordination," said 18-year-old Eddie Burrell of California. "It's stuck in its old ways. The church needs to realize where the church is now, where it is going."

Sharing this perception, in part, was Pat Doty of Kansas. "I guess I am kind of the rebel in the crowd," said the 17-year-old lifetime Catholic. "I believe in women's rights to be priests. But I'm a fence-sitter when it comes to abortion."

In stark contrast were the more conservative views expressed by some of those from developing countries. "Abortion is totally out where I come from. It's not even a big issue," said Victor Felix Osman from Sudan. "And I am totally against women priests. You see in my country, man is always first."

Likewise, Khuong Hoang, a native of Vietnam who now lives in California, is against any major church reforms on such issues. "I'm satisfied with the way it is," said Hoang, who was among several hundred Vietnamese Catholics to meet privately with the pope.

The city of Denver, with the added incentives of increased tourism and revenues, went all out for the occasion. Welcome signs hung on fronts of buildings, sides of buses and even portable hot dog carts. One local pub even concocted a special brew: "Ale Mary."

Many said the experience left them physically tired but spiritually refreshed. As part of the event, thousands took part in a 15-mile pilgrimage to Cherry Creek Park, where an estimated 375,000 gathered the next day for the closing Mass.

The pope left the pilgrims with a mandate to uphold church teachings and to become the "new evangelists." He also announced that the 1995 World Youth Day will take place in Manila in the Philippines.

WYD leaders said the pope shortened his final address because the Mass was running long, and the heat was taking its toll on the pilgrims. About 20,000 participants were treated for dehydration and heat-related ailments in the final days of the gathering.

Not the glare of the hot Denver sun nor the occasional downpour wilted the participants' enthusiasm. "It was overwhelming," said 16-year-old Nolvia Herrera, a native of El Salvador now living in the United States. "Even though didn't understand everyone's language or music, I was still so happy to be with them. I can't wait to share this experience with those back home. ... The whole thing made me proud to be Catholic."
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Title Annotation:Papal Visit
Author:Edwards, Robin T.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Aug 27, 1993
Words:1093
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