Remembering Pope St. John Paul II’s 1999 visit

Papal Youth Gathering, Mass the following day in St. Louis 25 years ago were pivotal moments for many who attended


CLICK HERE to read The Catholic Missourian’s 1999 article about the Papal Youth Rally.

CLICK HERE to read The Catholic Missourian’s 1999 article about the Papal Mass.

Rebecca Cassmeyer was a student at Saint Louis University and played the flute with the choir for the Sunday night Mass in St. Francis Xavier Church.

As such, she got to be part of the orchestra that accompanied Evening Prayer during the Light of the World Papal Youth Gathering with Pope John Paul II in St. Louis.

It was Jan. 26, 1999, the first day of the long-serving pontiff’s historic visit to Missouri.

The youth gathering drew more than 20,000 high school  and college age Catholics and their chaperones to the city’s hockey arena.

Seven hundred fifty young people from the Jefferson City diocese occupied two sections in the arena and spilled out into adjacent sections.

Another 250 from the diocese took in the festivities in the bustling “Papal Plaza” outside the building.

The rally took place the day before Pope John Paul offered Mass in the presence of about 100,000 people in the city’s domed stadium.

“I never could have fathomed the depth of holiness I would experience that day,” stated Ms. Cassmeyer, a member of St. Margaret of Antioch Parish in Osage Bend.

She said music has always been a source of connection to God for her.

“And that day, I truly felt that divine connection in the thousands of voices that joined together in praise,” she said.

Yet, her most profound memories from the day came when Pope St. John Paul II stepped up onto the platform in the arena.

“I knew, without a doubt, that I was in the presence of holiness,” she recalled.

 “I was truly inspired by that day,” she said. “I felt so honored and truly blessed to experience Christ’s love poured out from that saint.”

“It was magnificent”

Pope John Paul II (+1978-2005) was one of the longest-reigning and most influential popes in the Church’s history.

He was beatified in 2011, six years after his death, and declared a saint in 2014.

Many who were present during his visit to Missouri — his final trip to the United States — 25 years ago look back to that moment as a major turning point in their lives.

Father Paul Clark was in fifth grade at Mary Immaculate School in Kirksville when word came that the pope was coming to Missouri.

“I had in my heart a burning desire to witness and see him,” said Fr. Clark, who is now vocation director for the diocese and chaplain at Helias Catholic High School in Jefferson City.

He had no idea where that desire was coming from, nor the words to describe it.

“But I did know that the diocese was sending people from each parish,” he recalled. “I was too young to go to the big youth rally the day before the Mass, and I was thinking, ‘Aw, man! I don’t want to miss out!’”

Through arrangements with the St. Louis archdiocese, every parish in central and northeastern Missouri received a certain number of tickets for people to attend the Mass in what is now known as the Dome at America’s Center.

It was up to each parish to determine how to distribute the tickets. Fr. Clark’s home parish, St. Joseph in Edina, held a lottery.

The future priest submitted his name and was overjoyed to have it chosen.

“Looking back, I’m convinced that it wasn’t a matter of happenstance,” he stated. “It was either the work of the Holy Spirit or of certain people in the parish seeing a young person who was excited about experiencing the universality of the Church, and finding a concrete way of encouraging it.

“Or maybe both!” he said.

The day of the Mass found him and fellow parishioners in the “nosebleed seats” in the Dome.

“I remember how steep and crazy it was,” he said. “I’m afraid of heights.”

Yet, after the orderly chaos of getting tens of thousands of people through security and to their seats, “the moment Pope John Paul walked into that giant stadium, there was a presence, and everybody felt it.

“Even though he was so far away and people had binoculars to see him better, even though he was like a speck down there, his presence and the light he brought into that dome was immense,” said Fr. Clark. “It was magnificent!”

The priest returns to that thought often, especially while sharing his call story with the middle-schoolers at the diocese’s Camp Lolek summer camp.

The name comes from the childhood nickname of Karl Wojtyla — later known as Pope John Paul II.

“It was nothing that he did that made him saintly — it was who he was,” said Fr. Clark. “It was him owning his identity. He lived it so freely. That sonship, it just radiated, and it was felt throughout the Dome.”

Making good time

The papal visit, specifically the Youth Gathering, became a milestone in Father Mark Smith’s Priesthood and ministry.

“It was quite a week!” he stated.

Fr. Smith, then a priest of only two-and-a-half years, was serving as associate pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish in Jefferson City.

His pastor, Father (now Monsignor) Gregory Higley, and he had spoken about leading a group of young people to St. Louis for the Papal Youth Gathering. But no tickets had been made available to parishes outside the St. Louis archdiocese.

“Only a week or so beforehand, we got notification from the Chancery that yes, there were some tickets available,” Fr. Smith recalled.

He remembers mentioning to Msgr. Higley over breakfast in the rectory dining room, “It would be great if we had a bus to go to the Mass with the Pope at the Dome.”

Msgr. Higley said it would be even better to arrange transportation for the teens in I.C. and surrounding parishes to get to the Youth Rally.

“That’s what I’d like you to do,” the pastor told the associate.

Fr. Smith immediately thought about sign-ups and permission slips and finding chaperones, not to mention chartering a bus.

“I don’t see how I can do it,” Fr. Smith replied. “I just don’t have time for it.”

“Go get your appointment book,” the pastor said with a smile.

Together, they went through the following week’s appointments.

“Okay, I can take care of this for you,” Msgr. Higley told him. “And you can cancel that, and we’ll find someone else to do that. ... Now, do you have time?”

Fr. Smith asked if the parish staff could assist him, and hearing “yes,” he agreed.

Meanwhile, Msgr. Higley set out to charter a bus for priests to get to the Dome to concelebrate the Mass with the Pope.

The next few days were a cyclone of phone calls, paperwork and multitasking.

“We got the word out and filled all 50 seats on the bus,” said Fr. Smith.

He spent a morning at Helias Catholic High School, handing out forms, permission slips and information to students who signed up for the trip.

A camera crew from KRCG-TV News followed him through the preparations.

Soul having been seen

Maureen Quinn was a freshman at Helias Catholic.

A cousin, who was a senior, passed by her in the hall, saying, “Are going to see the pope? I’m going! You should go.”

Mostly out of respect to her cousin, Mrs. Quinn said yes.

“And that decision has shaped the rest of my life,” said Mrs. Quinn, who’s now director of religious education and youth/young adult ministry for this diocese.

“That ‘yes’ is the ‘yes’ that brought everything else,” she said.

She remembers sitting in the arena’s upper mezzanine during the Youth Gathering, not yet fully aware of the event’s significance.

“But the music was really good and the Holy Spirit was very present that day in my life — more than I even recognized,” she said.

When the pope arrived several hours later, she was taken up in the frenetic chanting of “J-P-Two! We-love-you!”

The crowd erupted as the pontiff entered the building.

“And I started weeping,” said Mrs. Quinn. “To this day, I don’t know what was happening. But even then, I knew I was in the presence of a living saint.

“I’ll remember that forever,” she said. “The Holy Spirit became so strong that it transformed my soul from that moment forward.”

Back home, she set out to learn the source of Pope John Paul’s unmistakable stature and authority.

She spent years reading his books, documents and homilies.

“It’s now clear to me that he radiated what he wrote,” she stated. “And it was just so clear how deeply he could love others.

“And he could see the good in others in the way he was capable of seeing the soul before he saw the exterior,” she said.

“The pope is yours”

Fr. Smith — who’s now pastor of Ss. Peter and Paul Parish in Boonville and St. Joseph Parish in Pilot Grove — remembers leaving early in the morning with the students and chaperones, parking at a suburban parking lot and riding a shuttle together to the Gateway Arch.

He remembers passing Lambert-St. Louis International Airport and seeing the flag of the Holy See waving with that of the United States on one of the flag stands.

“My heart just swelled at the sight of it,” he recalled. “The head of state of the Holy See and his delegation would be here soon, and they were being honored with this flag flowing in the breeze.”

From the Arch grounds, the group walked about 10 blocks with thousands of other young people to the sports venue now called the Enterprise Center.

Fr. Smith joined dozens of other priests in hearing Confessions for several hours in the concourses and private suites in the arena.

He said the prayer service with the pope was incredible.

“The crowds, the praying and singing, and the guest speakers — it was super moving,” he recalled.

He remembers John Paul proclaiming: “Tonight, the pope is yours!”

“That was a supreme, special moment,” Fr. Smith stated. “Just recalling it, I still get choked up.”

After the rally concluded, the group walked back to the Arch, boarded a shuttle and made it back to Jefferson City by 11:30 p.m.

Fr. Smith and Msgr. Higley had about 45 minutes to rest and get ready to board a bus back to St. Louis for Mass with the pope the following morning.

Fr. Smith got selected to distribute Holy Communion to a section of people.

He’s still amazed that with all the advance planning, it took less than 20 minutes for nearly 100,000 people in such a massive building to receive Holy Communion.

“To see the whole Dome full, and just processing in and walking by and seeing everybody was terribly moving,” he said.

Generation to generation

Luke Dalton isn’t old enough to remember the Pope’s visit, but he feels a strong connection to it.

His grandfather, Deacon Michael Dalton, was a permanent deacon for the St. Louis archdiocese and was slated to serve as an ordinary minister of Holy Communion at the Papal Mass in the Dome.

“Sadly, he became sick before the Mass and ended up needing to stay in the hospital,” Mr. Dalton, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Rolla and a seminarian for the Jefferson City diocese, noted.

“He could not serve at the altar with Pope St. John Paul II.”

After Deacon Dalton died in 2000, Mr. Dalton’s parents received his vestments and a special cross fashioned of nails made to look like those from the Crucifixion.

Mr. Dalton received the cross, which his grandfather wore every day, as a gift.

“Now, I wear it any time I am altar-serving, to feel closer to my grandpa and to serve as he did,” the seminarian stated.

Earlier this month, Mr. Dalton and the other seminarians of this diocese attended the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ national SEEK24 conference in St. Louis.

They attended Mass each day in the same building where Pope John Paul II had celebrated Mass a quarter-century earlier.

“It was also revealed that the altar and presider’s chair were used by Pope St. John Paul II at the same Mass!” Mr. Dalton noted.

“I had the privilege each day to serve at the altar by ushering priests to their stations to distribute Holy Communion, all while wearing my grandfather’s cross,” he said.

“It was a reminder to me that God can reveal His love in many ways, even little ways, to bring us closer to Him,” he stated.

“Reflect the light”

Jacob Luecke was a junior at St. Francis Borgia High School in Washington, Missouri, when the pope came to St. Louis.

Now a member of Cathedral of St. Joseph Parish and director of communications for the Jefferson City diocese, Mr. Luecke says the Papal Youth Gathering was a pivotal moment in his journey toward God.

“I jumped at the chance to be a part of something that felt historic,” he recalled.

“I felt lucky I was able to get a spot,” he said.

He remembers making the 50-mile trip to St. Louis by bus the morning of the youth rally, and being taken up in the festivities and concerts that were getting under way in the parks outside the sports arena.

Many of the specifics of the day now escape his recollection, “but one thing I can never forget is the incredible energy.”

“I’ve never been in such a charged space like that!” said Mr. Luecke. “The excitement and positive energy was way beyond any sporting event or concert I’ve ever attended.”

He recently re-read the Pope’s remarks from that day, and several passages jogged his memories, especially:

“On the horizon of this city stands the Gateway Arch, which often catches the sunlight in its different colors and hues. In a similar way, in a thousand different ways, you must reflect the light of Christ through your lives of prayer and joyful service of others.”

“The idea that each of us has a different mission and calling has always been important to me,” Mr. Luecke noted. “And serving with joy is something that I focus on. I think hearing those words from the Pope on that day helped ingrain those concepts inside of me in a powerful way.”

Being there also expanded his perception of the universality of the Church.

“Up until that time, my experience with faith was all centered on my home parish,” he said. “I knew the Church was universal, but on that day, I could truly experience it!”

“Christ is calling you”

Alex Reel was a freshman at Knox County R-I High School in Edina when she attended the Papal Youth Gathering in St. Louis.

“I didn’t realize it at the time,” she recalled, “but that night would set the course for the rest of my life.”

Specifically, it piqued her curiosity about the mind and heart of the man who had been leading the Church for longer than she had been alive.

“I very distinctly remember a few sentences that he said that I have clung to,” said Mrs. Reel, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Edina.

One was the pope’s emphatic exhortation: “Remember: Christ is calling you; the Church needs you; the Pope believes in you and he expects great things of you.”

Four years after the papal visit, Mrs. Reel was staying on campus during the summer between her freshman and sophomore years at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

A friend in the Theater Department was preparing to stage a production of “The Jeweler’s Shop,” one of several plays written by young Karol Wojtyla, who grew up to become Pope John Paul II.

She was planning to audition for a part in the play when a friend stood in her doorway and wondered aloud if he should audition.

She instantly told him, “Yes! I don’t know what I’m being called to do with my life, but I know it has something to do with John Paul II. And this seems like a good place to start.”

“It must have been the Holy Spirit because those are not the words I would have used,” she recalled. “But they did come out of my mouth.”

“I never would have said what I said to him if it weren’t for the St. Louis visit that started it all,” she added.

They both auditioned and rehearsed through the summer, with the play opening at the beginning of the new academic year.

Over time, they began dating and recently celebrated their 19th wedding anniversary.

Something in common

Several years after the pope’s visit, Mrs. Quinn was majoring in theology at Benedictine College.

She and a group of faith-filled friends there were talking about what had led them to where they were in their lives.

“It turns out that every ... single ... one of us was either in the arena for the Papal Youth Gathering or the Dome for the Mass the next day,” she noted.

“For all of us, that was the moment that changed our lives forever,” she said.

Mrs. Quinn is grateful for all the people who have walked with her and facilitated her journey toward God.

Among them, she said, are Fr. Smith, without whose “yes” to setting up the trip on short notice, she never would have made it to St. Louis back in 1999.

Raising his voice

Mrs. Reel set about studying Pope John Paul II’s extensive writings from before and after his tectonic papacy.

Through the inevitable peaks and valleys of discerning God’s plans for her, she’s called out to John Paul for intercessory guidance while distinctly hearing in response his words of encouragement from that night in St. Louis.

She’s now completing a four-semester certification in the Catholic Psychology of Applied Personalism, through the CatholicPsych Institute in Connecticut.

“The goal for this new program is to integrate philosophy, grounded in the concept of personalism that John Paul II developed — basically his anthropology combined with authentic Catholic spirituality and psychology,” she said.

Participants learn how to be better spiritual accompaniers and mentors to people seeking to strengthen their mental and emotional health.

The program’s goal, said Mrs. Reel, is “to understand humans better and the human hearts and what motivates us ... how we’re hurt in relationships and how we can be led toward healing in our relationships. It could help all of humanity.”

Mrs. Reel noted that without Pope John Paul II, “philosophy, his insight into the human heart,” there would be no grounds for developing such a program.

“And if it weren’t for the fact that I went to see him in to St. Louis back in 1999, I don’t think I would have spent these past however many years preparing myself to become part of this program,” she said.

She’s convinced that as scholars continue unpacking the sainted pontiff’s voluminous teachings, “his voice in the Church will continue to grow louder.”

“It’s going to take on a roar!” she said.