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John Denver

A papal postcard from Denver, Colorado

Luke Frazza/Getty Images

On Thursday, the elementary school across the street from my house filled with teenagers. I knew they had come for World Youth Day and to see the pope—but you couldn't possibly live in Denver and not know that. All week long, Secret Service helicopters had been flying over our street, scoping out the route to the college where the pope and President Clinton were to meet. T-shirts featuring the pope and the Rocky Mountains were for sale on front lawns fbr blocks around. John Paul—or Juan Pablo, as he was called in this neighborhood—was in town with a vengeance.

Like the pilgrims crowding into downtown Denver—hanging out of buses, singing loudly, their crucifixes tangled in their backpack straps—the kids across the street favored a sort of fresh-scrubbed grunge. There was no way to tell where they came from just by look-ing at them. Which was fine with me. I hadn't planned to take an interest—it would conflict with the party line my peers and I hold dear.

My husband, a renegade Catholic who began his rebellion by walking out of kneeling practice in second grade, wanted nothing to do with the pilgrims. One of my editors at work went into paroxysms of annoyance every time he saw one. There they'd be, waving their flags of all nations and singing their wholesome songs—and there he'd be, loudly offering his theory that all this was a P.R. maneuver meant to distract us from the sexual misconduct of priests. The town's media was falling all over itself to declare this Colorado's finest moment. Not us.

The alternative newspaper where I work had already published pictures featuring a pope impersonator as a Colorado tourist—playing the slots, windsurfing, draining a cold beer. We had invested in black market pope-abilia: rub-on tattoos and foam-rubber miters. What more could we do? We stood for reproductive rights, evolution, parity between the sexes and other sane things.

The problem was, I just couldn't seem to get around to feeling threatened. Sure, Catholicism is problematic, but I've gotten to like Catholics. I live among them. Northwest Denver, my adopted neighborhood for the past decade, is an old, eccentric, Mexican-Italian, Catholic cocoon—so explicitly religious that a few years ago the Devil moved into the basement across the street, only to be exorcised by a kind old couple whose real names are Joseph and Mary. The Catholic trappings of Northwest Denver are beautiful—the parochial kids in sensible plaid, the santo nino de aiocha candles at the botanica down the street. People here are accepting. No matter how heathenish I act, I know I will never face excommunication. On Friday morning, I watched as the kids across the street streamed out of their building and down my sidewalk. The language they spoke sounded faintly Slavic, and I drifted outside to practice my terrible Russian on their priest.

"Where are you going?" I asked him.

His eyes actually lit up. He smiled. "McDonald's!" he said.

On Saturday, I wandered across the street. The pilgrims were getting ready to board buses for Cherry Creek State Park, where they would spend the night in sleeping bags waiting to hear the pope celebrate mass. It turned out all 150 of them were recent immigrants to Canada from Poland, that they had come to see the pope in part because he's Polish too and that quite a few of them were cranky.

"We have not been to any Denver place but McDonald's" one 15-year-old girl complained. "We have not even seen pope, except on TV. We are wanting so much to meet other youth, but we are not."

A few girls strummed guitars and sang, but the rest of the crowd was restive. The original plan—to walk the fifteen miles to Cherry Creek—had been scrapped, and the priest was trying to load his charges into two out of three buses, the third having somehow been lost in the shuffle. "How can this be happen?" I heard the priest mutter. "How can a whole bus not be?" Finally, the pilgrims sat on each other's laps and drove away. I know that half a million people were converging on their camp site. After all their trouble, I hoped they'd get to see the pope.

By the time Sunday mass was over, I wasn't sure they would make it back to Northwest Denver at all. The radio was full of horror stories—17,000 of the faithful stricken by heat prostration, half-mile-long port-a-potty lines, at least one fatal heart attack. Almost 750,000 people had shown up at Cherry Creek, and most of them seem to have thought they could heat the 90-degree heat with an occasional sip of Pepsi.

The two buses finally appeared at about six o'clock Sunday night. A few minutes later, my doorbell rang. Outside were Magda, Violeta and Monica, all 16. They asked if they could take a shower.

I fed them tea and Colorado peaches while they waited their turns. I said I was sorry so much had gone wrong at mass.

"But nothing is wrong!" Magda said. "It was so beautiful!"

The heat? The fainting multitudes?

"Some people were fainting," Violeta agreed, "but it was wonderful. In the communion I was so happy I was crying."

"The pope spoke a different language to almost every country," Monica said. "To us, he said, The Jesus is your friend. He told us about the love."

"Oh," Violeta sighed, "I like this pope so much."

After their showers, the three girls pressed me to accept an I Love Toronto key chain and sang me a song in Polish. It contained not one word about God or Jesus or the sanctity of life. In translation, it went:

We're glad you're here
Were glad you're here 
We're glad you're here
Oh what if you weren't here?

My husband and daughter came in from the Safeway during the last chorus. It was quite a scene. We all stood there among the grocery bags laughing and singing a little. Suddenly, a helicopter passed low over the house. The pope was on his way out of town. Unbeknownst to me, he had been only five blocks away, making an unannounced visit to an orphanage just south of the Safeway. As charitable institutions go, the Mount Saint Vincent Home is self-effacing. If you didn't know an emotionally disturbed child, you might not even know it existed. With all the higher-profile targets in town, I couldn't imagine what led the pope to our neighborhood, but he had come, and even my husband was impressed.

"He just walked right in and stayed awhile," my husband told us. "There were police barricades everywhere, and people were out on their lawns."

"Did you see him?" Monica asked.

"No, but our checker did. She was outside having a cigarette during her break, and the pope walked by on the other side of the fence. She saw him all right," he said. "You should have seen her face."