Remembering papal visit to the heartland Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, editor   
Thursday, Oct. 01, 2009 -- 12:00 AM

editor's viewIt doesn’t seem possible that it has been 30 years since Pope John Paul II made his historic visit to rural Des Moines, Iowa. As a young reporter, I was among nearly 350,000 people gathered on a hillside to welcome the Holy Father. It is an experience I’ll never forget.

As the pope celebrated Mass and preached to the throngs of people, it reminded me of what the Sermon on the Mount must have been like. I really felt the presence of Jesus in our midst that day in October of 1979.

Visit to the heartland
Logo for pope in Des Moines

As I wrote for the Catholic Herald after the visit, “What happened at Des Moines was unique. No pope has ever visited the American heartland. And even though the big cities beckoned, this pope made certain he didn’t neglect the rural section of this country.”

The setting for the Mass was perfect. The altar was placed on a platform built on a grassy knoll rising in the middle of a natural amphitheater. No city could have provided such a beautiful spot.

Ties to Diocese of Madison

The Diocese of Madison was especially tied to this Mass because Fr. John Buscemi, then an art instructor at Madison’s Holy Name Seminary, served as artistic director for the papal Mass.

Father Buscemi designed a colorful banner which was hung behind the papal chair for the Mass. The banner was quilted by a group of 15 people from Cross Plains, Madison, and Lodi. It was announced at the papal Mass that the banner was a gift from the Diocese of Madison.

The beautiful banner was designed with a furrowed cross representing the land with each of the four surrounding quadrants colored to evoke a season of the year. The banner design (used in the logo with this editorial) was adapted by the Diocese of Des Moines as its diocesan logo and is still used to this day. The original banner now hangs in a chapel on the site of Living History Farms.

Land is God’s gift entrusted to us

Pope John Paul II arrived by helicopter for the rural Mass on October 4, 1979. The crowd erupted in cheers and waves. The pope was met by a little girl in Polish dress and then by Joe Hays, the farmer whose hand-written note had prompted the papal visit to Iowa.

In his homily in heavily accented English, Pope John Paul II reminded us that the land is God’s gift entrusted to his people “as a means of sustaining the life he created.” He called on farmers to be generous with food to help feed the millions who are hungry. “Conserve the land well, so your children’s children and generations after them will inherit an even richer land,” challenged the Holy Father.

The Offertory procession included a special corn plant grown in soil mixed from different local soils contributed by dioceses in the Midwest. I was fortunate to be in the front near the altar and received Communion. At the end of the Mass, the Holy Father blessed everyone and started to walk toward the crowd. He wanted to shake hands with us, but he was whisked back to his helicopter

He left behind people energized by being in his presence. He emphasized the importance of rural life and of the farmers who grow the food we eat. Then, as today, we realized that it is vital that all of us — rural and urban alike — work together to preserve the land for future generations.

Remembering the visit

This year the Diocese of Des Moines, Living History Farms (site of the pope’s visit), and the National Catholic Rural Life Conference are working together to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Holy Father’s visit. Planned events include a symposium, programs for youth, an interfaith prayer service, and Masses. Bishop William H. Bullock, bishop emeritus of the Diocese of Madison and former bishop of Des Moines, will be going to the celebration. See for more information.

As our own Diocese of Madison holds rural life listening sessions and a Rural Life Mass on October 20, let the memories of Pope John Paul II’s visit inspire us to support and encourage our farmers and rural communities. Let us all pray, too, for greater respect for the land and its people.