Remembering Pope John Paul II in Iowa 30 years ago

My first big assignment in the Catholic press was an unbelievable 30 years ago — covering the visit of Pope John Paul II to America’s heartland in October 1979. I was working at the Denver Catholic Register, newspaper of the Denver Archdiocese, and at the last minute my editor decided I should head to Iowa with a Catholic group making a pilgrimage there by bus. Our destination: Living History Farms in Urbandale, near Des Moines.

When I saw an announcement a few weeks ago of an Oct. 2-3 symposium marking the anniversary of the pope’s historic visit taking place in Des Moines, I was reminded of the stories I did at the time, so I went back to my old clips to see what I had written:

 “The crowd of young and old blanketed the fields and brought a life and color to the area which had been quiet pasture land just three weeks ago.

“The bus ride, the early mornings, the walking and the waiting seemed to be quickly forgotten as the helicopter bearing the pope landed. He celebrated Mass and discussed the beauty and importance of the rural way of life, and as the papal visit came to a close, the event was the highlight of a lifetime, according to the Denver group.”

I remember being impressed by the sea of people — numbering about 350,000 — and watching them move across the fields as they found a place to wait for the pope’s arrival and for the Mass he would celebrate. When it was over, I couldn’t help but wonder what a sight it must have been for the pope as his helicopter flew overhead as the people streamed down the highway on foot (a portion of it was closed), leaving for home and to reflect on his message.

The pope’s words that day about respecting the land and the work of  farmers and everyone involved in raising our food and getting it to us still have resonance:

“Land is God’s gift … land is man’s responsibility,” Pope John Paul told the crowd. “To all you farmers and all who are associated with agricultural productions, I want to say the church highly esteems your work. … You support the lives of millions. … Conserve the land well so that future generations will inherit an even richer land than was entrusted to you.”

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