[This piece appeared in the Des Moines Register this morning.]
THE DAY THE POPE CAME TO IOWA
By Tom Quiner
Photo by Larry Helton
“Look at all those people down there!” said Pope John II from his helicopter.
He saw long, winding rows of people in the fields at Living History Farms below. “They must be standing in line for confession.”
“Ahh, no Your Holiness,” said his aide, “I think they’re waiting in line for the port-a-potty.”
This is the joke Cardinal Timothy Dolan shared with us when he spoke at the Christ Our Life Catholic Conference a couple of weeks ago at Wells Fargo Arena. He characterized the man now known as “Saint John Paul the Great” as the soul of the church.
I was one of the guys standing in line at Living History Farms 35 years ago freezing my you-know-what off. And I wasn’t even Catholic at the time!
Little did I know the profound impact this man would have on my life, and so many other others.
Three-hundred fifty thousand people showed up on this dark, cold unpleasant October 4th in the year of our Lord, 1979. Barb Arkwright and husband Mike of Waukee were there with five kids in tow. Barb commented on how “cold, cloudy and rainy it was until the helicopter was approaching to land, and then the sun came out in all its glory!”
Doug Renze of Des Moines was there: “I was 9, it was freezing out, and my mom didn’t let me take a heavy coat because she didn’t think it was going to be cold. I vividly remember the helicopter landing and drinking stale coffee to warm up. I only vaguely remember the Mass, because we couldn’t hear a darned thing!”
I agree. The wind swirled around the microphone making this Polish Pope’s already thick accent downright unintelligible for those of us listening from the back forty.
Stories abound. One of my favorites comes from retired advertising executive, Jim Boyt.
He was asked by then Bishop, Maurice Dingman, to transport retired priest, Fr. Francis Ostdiek, to the airport to see the Pope’s arrival. Jim, an Irishman, characterized the good father as a strong-willed German, a sometime toxic combination. Nonetheless, the excitement of seeing the Polish Pope kept everyone on an even keel.
The Secret Service gave Boyt and the wheel chair bound priest a choice place to be when the plane arrived. Bishop Dingman and Govenor Robert Ray greeted the Pope. From the ground, Jim could see the Bishop talking with the Pope and pointing their way.
God love Pope John Paul II! He made a beeline for Fr. Ostdiek, embraced him and said, “Father, you couldn’t come to Rome to see me, so your Pope comes to Iowa to see you.” To which Fr. Ostdiek replied, “you know, Your Holiness, I think you’re doing a pretty good job.” JPII howled with laughter.
Why did the Pope come to the American Midwest for the first time in history? Because he was asked.
An Iowa farmer from Truro, Joe Hayes, wrote to the Pope and invited him to come and talk about land stewardship. Mr. Hayes’ letter was like a mustard seed that grew into one of the biggest events in Iowa history. Seldom has there been a Pope more in love with the land than JPII.
He told us that the Church esteems the work of the farmer. He said we must maintain three attitudes in our relationship with the land: gratitude, conservation, and generosity.
He talked about what God will do with our labors:
“Bring with you to Christ the products of your hands, the fruit of the land, that “which earth has given and human hands have made”. At this altar these gifts will be transformed into the Eucharist of the Lord.”
The soul of the Church smiled at the gathered mass of Iowans and left us with this thought:
“Above all, bring your families and dedicate them anew to Christ, so that they may continue to be the working, living and loving community where nature is revered, where burdens are shared and where the Lord is praised in gratitude.”
[Tom Quiner is a Des Moines businessman and composer. His musical, “The Pope of the People, the John Paul II Musical,” was performed in a dozen churches in 2011. His new production is “The Wedding at Cana.” Learn more at www.CatholicDinnerTheater.com, or e-mail him at email@example.com.]