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4.12.05

Pope John Paul II

Opening Windows in a Cornfield

By Kim Knox

The world's 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.

The anchor 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.

In the 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.

But my 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 city.

When Pope 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.

Des Moines 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."

Because this 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.

Then the 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 the world.

While I 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.