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'Pilgrimage to the Peaks': Pope John Paul II in Denver

Colorado hosted Pope John Paul II for World Youth Day in 1993.

DENVER — Thirty years ago, Pope John Paul II came to Denver for World Youth Day. It was arguably the biggest event in Colorado's history.

More than 250,000 young people from 100 nations around the world came as well.

The State of Colorado and the City of Denver had to find housing for them and provide transportation, medical care and facilities for daily events.

Security was extremely tight. The summer of 1993, which was marked by gang violence and homicides, was called the “Summer of Violence.”

It was a massive task, but it put Colorado in the world spotlight and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Credit: Gary Shapiro
Portrait of Pope John Paul II at the Archdiocese of Denver

When it comes to Catholic popes, John Paul II is one of the most fondly remembered.

He was a religious and spiritual leader, a head of state and a political pioneer. He led the Roman Catholic Church and the Vatican State from 1978 until he passed away in 2005 and was canonized as a Saint.

Born in Poland as Karol Wojtyla, he grew up playing hockey, skiing and loving the mountains.

As pope, he not only spread the gospel, but seized the world stage working to bring down the Iron Curtin around the Soviet Union.

Many historians credit Pope John Paul II for pushing the first dominoes that eventually led to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe.

He was a staunch religious conservative, thus at odds with many Catholics over issues like abortion, gay rights and women in the clergy. Yet he worked tirelessly to keep the flock together.

Despite his conservativism, or in some cases because of it, he related to young people in the church.

Most saw him as kind of a rock star, a larger-than-life symbol who preached faith, peace and humility.

That’s why when John Paul II selected Denver for World Youth Day over Minneapolis-St. Paul and Buffalo, New York it was a big deal.

The lead-up to the event and his time in Colorado were covered nearly non-stop by local media, as well as reporters and photographers from around the world.

Credit: Gary Shapiro
Site of the World Youth Day ’93 Mass at Cherry Creek State Park, attended by 500,000 people.

The week of the Papal visit brought with it energy, excitement and lots of emotion.

The pope met with President Bill Clinton at Regis University. He spoke at the opening ceremony at the old Mile High Stadium, which had a higher attendance than a Broncos game.

He led mass at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Denver.

He spent some downtime hiking in the mountains at Camp St. Malo, a chapel and event center near Allenspark. It was there he surprised some of the faithful, who were standing at a roadblock on Peak-to-Peak Highway, hoping to get a glimpse of the Holy Father. He walked right up to them, talked to them, hugged them and prayed with them – all on live TV.

The final event of his visit was mass at Cherry Creek State Park, attended by more than 500,000 people.

Unfortunately, many of the pilgrims, as they were called – had to walk there from downtown Denver on a very hot day. They weren’t used to the altitude, hadn’t had much to eat and drank little water. As a result many got sick. Thousands of them were taken to triage areas and medical facilities along the way to be treated.

It was a huge medical crisis and became front-page news in the U.S. and many other countries. One doctor 9NEWS talked to compared it to a mobile army surgical hospital (MASH) unit during war.

But members of the Denver and Arapahoe County emergency services handled it like pros – and most pilgrims made it to Cherry Creek State Park in time to attend the Mass.

Credit: Archdiocese of Denver
Gary Shapiro interviewing J Francis Cardinal Stafford, Archbishop Emeritus of Denver, who was Archbishop during World Youth Day

Whether you are Catholic or not, World Youth Day in Colorado was an amazing time.

I know it was for me.

9NEWS sent me and anchor Mike Landess to Rome and Poland to do a preview special on the pope.

We met with Pope John Paul II for a short time and talked to him. We found him to be warm, friendly and charismatic.

His visit here was exciting to cover, filled with emotion, protests, a presidential visit and memories.

I remember thousands of people walking down the Cherry Creek Path chanting “Pope John Paul Two, we love you!”

And remember the “Summer of Violence?” The week the pope was here was peaceful; no shootings, no arrests, no issues.

Pope John Paul II led a Pilgrimage to the Peaks that is still celebrated by many people three decades later.


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