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Catholic Gathering Draws Youth to Denver Meeting With Pope

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Some 164,000 young people from the United States and around the globe will make a pilgrimage to Denver next week to see Pope John Paul II and to entreat their peers to draw nearer to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Aug. 11-15 international celebration of World Youth Day--observed in the United States the last Sunday of October--is being held in this country for the first time. Prior gatherings have taken place in Buenos Aires; Santiago de Compostela, Spain; and Czestochowa, Poland.

The four-day event, staged in alternating years since the Pope established World Youth Day in 1986, is intended to cast light on the church's youngest members and to emphasize the importance of youth evangelism.

About 40,000 of the 164,000 registrants are from overseas, and roughly 60,000 are under 18, organizers said.

"The whole idea of World Youth Day is to come together in common faith--it's a celebration of faith,'' said James Breen, the director of the office for young adult ministry for the Archdiocese of Boston.

Mr. Breen said he expected about half of the 1,200 Bostonians attending will be under 18.

Officials from dioceses around the country said the staging of the event here offers hope that American teenagers and young adults will get excited about and involved in the church--and bring others with them. In recent years, active participation in the church has declined even as the number of Americans who call themselves Catholic has increased.

The event, which is aimed at those 13 to 39, is co-sponsored by the Vatican's Council for the Laity and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is being hosted by the Archdiocese of Denver.

The Pope is not expected to visit any other American cities during this trip, according to organizers. President Clinton is scheduled to meet with the Pontiff Aug. 12 at Denver's Regis University.

An "Education in Itself''

Housing, hauling, feeding, and otherwise tending to the 164,000 faithful will require something of a logistical miracle.

Participants are being sheltered in hotels, schools, parish halls, and with host families from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins--within an hour's drive of Denver, said Trish Gessner, a World Youth Day spokeswoman.

In addition to daily prayer and catechetical sessions followed by mass, the event will feature concerts, dramatic performances, meetings with bishops, inter-cultural exchanges, and opportunities for community service.

The chance to mix with young people from 70 countries promises to be "a whole education in itself'' Mr. Breen of the Boston archdiocese said.

Groups attending the event have had to do their own fund-raising to cover the cost of their transportation, lodging, and other expenses.

In the New Orleans archdiocese, for example, 39 students from the all-girls' Immaculata High School in Marrero, La., raised nearly $10,000 through bake sales, garage sales, and other efforts, said Sister Sally Brown, the Immaculata theology teacher leading the group.

Several other dioceses are sending large contingents.

Denver alone will account for about 15,000 registrants, said Mary Gibson, the director of communications for the archdiocese's office of Catholic charities and community services.

The archdiocese, which covers the northern half of the state, has about 335,000 Catholics, she said.

In the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest with more than three million Catholics, about 1,200 to 1,400 junior high and high school students representing about a third the archdiocese's 300 parishes are set to attend, said Tom East, the associate director for the archdiocese's office of religious education.

Some 850 of the Los Angeles-area pilgrims are traveling in a three-day bus convoy. Mr. East said officials envision that potentially grueling journey as a "rolling retreat'' for young people featuring prayer, reflection, journal writing, and stops in parks along the way.

The intent of the trip is to "give them skills to go back and spread the word, skills for evangelization,'' said Mr. East, who called the event a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.''

Leave the Walkman at Home

In Boston, Mr. Breen said, "there's a lot of excitement for the kids, especially inner-city kids to see that part of the country.'' About half of the archdiocese's 400 parishes are sending representatives, he said.

The Boston archdiocese has made World Youth Day part of a "year of pilgrimage'' that has included special events and a spiritual "challenge'' to young people to become active in the church.

Boston teenagers who cannot make the trip to Denver will still get a chance to participate.

About 500 students will stay overnight on Aug. 14 at Boston College High School, where the vigil service with the Pope in Denver that evening will be simulcast on television.

The Boston students will have their own prayer services, games, a cookout, and midnight mass, followed by a sunrise service, Mr. Breen said.

In the New Orleans archdiocese, the 39 sophomores, juniors, and seniors from Immaculata High School are prepared to "travel in discomfort'' during their 24-hour bus trip to Denver, Sister Brown said.

The group, part of the more than 250 teenagers attending from the archdiocese, will leave their Walkman personal stereos, jewelry, and makeup behind, she said.

The girls also have been working with the poor and elderly, Sister Brown said, "to help them realize that this isn't a tourist trip.''

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