Host to pope in Denver is Stafford, native and ex-bishop of Baltimore THE POPE IN DENVER


DENVER -- Maryland's distinctive state flag stood out in the offertory procession of the opening Mass here Wednesday night for the rally of young Roman Catholics from around the world.

There were two reasons.

One was Baltimore's Archbishop William H. Keeler, who as elected head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is chairman of Denver's weeklong international gathering called -- officially -- World Youth Day '93.

This upbeat religious rally of 170,000 teen-agers and young adults, concluding with another open-air Mass on Sunday morning, is what brought both Pope John Paul II and President Clinton to Denver yesterday.

The second reason for the prominence of the Maryland flag is a churchman with even deeper links to Baltimore and Maryland than Archbishop Keeler, who is a native of Texas and the former bishop of Harrisburg, Pa.

Denver's archbishop and the pope's host this week is 61-year-old J. Francis Stafford, born and raised in Baltimore -- and a Baltimore bishop from 1976 to 1983.

He is vice chairman of World Youth Day '93.

Like Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Stafford has long been an enthusiastic skier and mountain climber, and it is expected that he will accompany the pontiff on a Rocky Mountain hike near Estes Park northwest of Denver before his return to Rome Sunday night.

On the plane Monday from Rome to Jamaica, the 73-year-old pope was asked by reporters about his health. He replied with a smile, "I'm still walking on my own two feet, even in the mountains."

Plans yesterday were for the pope to spend two of his three nights in Colorado in Archbishop Stafford's downtown Denver residence next to the Catholic cathedral, and one night in a posh retreat house owned by the Denver archdiocese at Estes Park.

Presiding at the open-air Mass Wednesday night in Civic Center Park downtown and addressing a congregation estimated at more than 100,000, Archbishop Stafford was cheered when he said to the Catholic young people, "Keeping the spirit of &L; childhood alive in the world -- that is your task."

The archbishop's childhood included Baltimore Catholic schools. He attended Loyola High School, Loyola College and St. Mary's Seminary.

After his ordination in Rome in 1957 and postgraduate studies at Catholic University, Rutgers and the University of Wisconsin, specializing in social work, he directed Catholic Charities in Baltimore from 1966 to 1976.

Ordained a bishop in Baltimore as auxiliary to Cardinal Lawrence Shehan in 1976, he became bishop of Memphis, Tenn., in 1983 and archbishop of Denver in 1986.

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