Twenty years ago this August Denver hosted World Youth Day, the first time the world event took place in the U.S. As WYD director of communications, I was on a core team from Washington with Father Dennis Schnurr, WYD executive director and now archbishop of Cincinnati, and Paul Henderson, WYD director of programming and now director of planning and communication operations at the USCCB. We’ve remained friends, with the kind of friendship borne of going to war together.
When I speak about WYD, I compare it to an elephant, one you gently prod to move where you’d like it to go, but knowing at any moment it could overpower you. If we knew how big WYD would become, we would have been afraid. With blissful ignorance, we set off for a fun adventure.
Though founded in Rome in 1985, WYD hadn’t quite caught on. The Vatican thought that holding the event in the USA would establish it. They counted on the immense media presence and U.S. ingenuity and organization. Their confidence was well placed.
As a reporter in Rome, I had traveled with Pope John Paul II. But sitting on a plane with him was a far cry from organizing media for an event to draw about 2,000 journalists and setting up a structure for TV and radio coverage. Early on, I took my concerns to Tim Russert, enthusiastic Catholic and host of NBC’s Meet the Press. With an analysis reflective of a man used to working within walls of power, he explained how to work with the media. “You own the pope, so you’re in charge,” he said.
Now if you want to be empowered, convince yourself you own the pope. When TV producers would balk at our plans, I would remain calm because, as Russert had assured me, I owned the pope. Russert also offered the help of veteran NBC special events producer Bob Asman, who had just organized the TV pool coverage of the Democratic National Convention in New York City. “We’ll call him the ‘secret missionary for God,’” Russert laughed. Asman so impressed the TV stations in Denver that had formed a consortium to deal with the largest event they’d ever known, that they hired him almost as soon as they met him.
When Catholic youth heard about WYD, they responded in force and surprised the bishops. Youth begged to go to the church event instead of church leaders begging them to go. Bishops who traveled with them found it life changing. It was a booster shot for the shepherds to be surrounded by energetic sheep. Their enthusiasm caught reporters up short. Media geared up for protests, but they never materialized. When one reporter asked a girl about her feelings on birth control and abortion, she told him teen-style, “Get a life!” The days were for prayer, not protest. The Washington Post reported the event was like Woodstock, with all of the good and none of the bad of the 1969 rock concert at a farm in the Catskills.
When I returned home, I had WYD on my mind. I must have overdone it because a friend told me one evening as we went down to Washington’s Union Station that all I talked about was World Youth Day. “I’m sure it was wonderful for you,” she said, “but let it go.” When we got to the station, a teenager bounded toward me across the Main Hall. “Hey, Sister Mary Ann,” he shouted. “Remember me? We met at World Youth Day. It was great.” My friend laughed, “Case closed,” she said, “I guess it was an event to last a lifetime.”