Pope John Paul II visited Iowa 40 years ago — on Oct. 4, 1979 — in what remains the largest gathering ever in the state, with 340,000 people turning out on a cold, windy day to hear the new pope talk about land being God’s gift to mankind.
John Paul, elected to the papacy in 1978, accomplished many firsts in his 26 years as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Born in Poland in 1920 as Karol Jozef Wojtyla, he was the first non-Italian pope in more than four centuries. Another first: He was the first pope to visit the Midwest.
It was Truro farmer Joseph A. Hays who invited the pope to visit Iowa.
“I had a spark, a thought, and I asked myself, ‘Why not?’ ” Hays said of the 1½-page letter he sent the pope July 19, the day a possible papal visit to the United States was announced.
Pope John Paul II was expected to spend about four hours at Living History Farms, the 600-acre park and museum complex northwest of Des Moines. Although preparations for the visit were full speed ahead, confirmation of the visit did not come from the Vatican until Aug. 29.
The pope’s schedule had him arriving in Boston on Oct. 1, addressing the United Nations in New York City on Oct. 2, going to Philadelphia on Oct. 3, coming to Iowa on Oct. 4, leaving for Chicago that afternoon, heading to Washington, D.C., on Oct. 6 to meet with President Jimmy Carter and returning to Rome on Oct. 7.
simplicity the motif
“The motif of our celebration on the occasion of the Holy Father’s visit will be one of simplicity,” said Bishop Maurice Dingman of Des Moines. “The spirit of St. Francis of Assisi, whose feast falls on the day of the visit, will be our inspiration.”
The diocese and the Vatican then had the challenge of organizing an event — that entailed a stop at a small rural parish and Living History Farms — in the span of four hours.
Dingman’s home in Des Moines was converted into a temporary command center, and committees were formed to handle parking, traffic, media, purchasing and the liturgy.
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“I was pleasantly surprised to discover so much of the decision-making was left to the local level,” Diocese spokesperson Sister Mira Mosle remarked,
Iowa National Guard Col. Harold Thompson, who served as liaison between state agencies and the diocese, said, “The key to our success was directly influenced by the fact that the governor (Robert Ray) took immediate action to draw together state resources, mostly public safety, to work with the diocese.”
cold and windy
When Oct. 4 dawned, cold and windy, the gates to an enormous space inside the snow fence opened at Living History Farms. Those who slept overnight nearest the fence were the first to cram into the area in front of the stage where the pope would speak.
The possibility of dirty shoes stepping on blankets — or worse, fingers or toes — was ignored as the faithful clamored to achieve a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the pontiff.
While people were gathering at the farm, the pope arrived at the Des Moines airport at 1:45 p.m. There, he greeted and handed out rosaries to about 75 elderly and people with disabilities who waited in line on the tarmac.
After about 10 minutes, he was whisked away to a Marine Corps helicopter that took him to tiny Cumming and its 111-year-old St. Patrick Church for a prayer service and a brief talk. From there, the pope re-boarded the helicopter to fly to Living History Farms.
‘land is god’s gift’
A day that was described as “barely bearable” because of the fall chill and brisk wind seemed to suddenly become warmer and less windy as the pontiff arrived.
Iowa was the fourth stop in the pope’s whirlwind tour of U.S. cities. On his way from Cumming to Des Moines, he momentarily drifted off to sleep.
After acknowledging the cheering crowd from the aircraft’s doorway, the pope moved to a nearby motor home to put on his vestments.
From there, he climbed the altar erected on a hilltop. There, with the assistance of bishops from Iowa’s four dioceses and 250 priests, he celebrated Mass while a choir of singers from every parish in the area sang.
John Paul II’s homily focused on rural America.
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“The land is God’s gift, entrusted to people from the very beginning. It is God’s gift, given by a loving creator, as a means of sustaining the life he has created,” he said. “But the land is not only God’s gift. It is also man’s responsibility.”
The pope’s plane left the Des Moines airport at 6:15 that evening on its way to Chicago.
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