Windows in a Cornfield
attention has been centered on one of the smallest principalities of the
world, the Vatican.
For a former
Catholic, I have mixed emotions about the death of John Paul II. I was
delighted that he helped Poland to become a democracy, helped to tear down
communism, and drew attention to plight of the hungry and refugees
throughout the world. I was of course saddened by his homophobic stances
and the protection of priests accused of abusing children. It is two of
the reasons that I am no longer a Catholic.
But in the
1990s, I went to Rome and stood in St. Peter's Square. Think of the Civic
Center and multiply by five. And multiply the number of people by 10. As I
stood among them, a familiar voice came out of the speakers. It was John
Paul II during his weekly mass to the masses.
to St. Peter's Square is the huge and majestic St. Peter's Basilica.
Inside, there are markings that show the size of St. Patrick's Cathedral,
Winchester Cathedral, and Canterbury Cathedral. This is to show you in
truly graphic terms that St. Peter's is much bigger than any other church
that you've ever been in.
I was drawn
to the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo worked under punishment from
Pope Julius II to paint the ceiling for a chapel that was built by Pope
Julius II's uncle, Pope Sextimus IV. The ceiling is more than 5,000 square
feet, with colors from a palette of brilliant pastels. The voices from the
crowd were deafening — people talking in Italian, Japanese, German,
English, Spanish, and hundreds of other languages.
basement are coffins and shrines to each of the popes. Almost all have a
bust next to their sarcophagus. Each of the popes had obviously planned a
majestic memorial to his power and holiness. The only exceptions were John
Paul I and John XXIII, each of whom had created a simple shrine with a
photo. Their shrines were the only ones with bouquets of flowers from
pilgrims, showing that they were truly men of the people.
favorite spot at the Vatican was the roof of the Sistine Chapel, which is
surrounded by statues of the twelve apostles. The view from there is
spectacular. You can see the hills of Rome and a panorama of the whole
John Paul II came to the United States in the late 1970s, my mother and I
(along with 400,000 others) went to see him in a cornfield outside Des
Moines. I remember that it was very cold when we got onto the school bus.
We rode for eight hours.
wasn't on John Paul's original itinerary. The apostolic delegate (the
pope's ambassador in the United States — he is basically the major domo of
the U.S. Catholic Church) had arranged for him to stop only at New York,
Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco. But a parishioner in Des Moines
convinced his parish priest to get the bishop of Des Moines to write a
letter to the apostolic delegate.
As it turned
out, the corresponding secretary for the apostolic delegate was born and
raised in — that's right, the good old state of Iowa. Because he
personally championed Des Moines' request, the pope was in the heartland
of the United States for six hours. Even in papal politics, the old saying
still applies: "It's all in who you know."
to be was a brief visit and the farm where the mass would be held was far
from the Des Moines Airport, the pope was flown onto a cornfield on a
helicopter. It had been a long wait, and when he arrived, the roar from
the crowd took everyone's breath away. The pope spoke in English to the
crowd and tried to sing along with the pilgrims. I remember that he seemed
to especially enjoy talking to the children on the stage.
helicopter descended again. As the pope walked up the stairs, he turned
around and waved. Once again, the crowd roared its approval, as the first
pope to leave the narrow confines of Vatican went off to see the rest of
didn't agree with John Paul II's stances, I appreciated that he was
willing to try and reach out to everyone — and especially to children. He
may not have created as much sunshine as we wanted, but he at least opened
the Catholic Church's windows to the 21st century.