Close encounters with St. John Paul II Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler, Catholic Herald Staff   
Thursday, May. 21, 2020 -- 12:00 AM

As we mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of St. John Paul II this week, it provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the pontificate of this remarkable Holy Father.

Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978, the first non-Italian pope to be elected in four centuries. He was 58 years old, which is fairly young for the head of the Catholic Church.

Travels throughout the world

His first homily had these famous words, “Be not afraid. Open wide the doors to Christ.”

Pope John Paul II brought that message in person during his travels throughout the world. He made 104 trips outside of Italy, traveling more than 700,000 miles to meet people around the globe.

I was fortunate to be in his presence three times. The first opportunity happened in 1979, just a year after he was elected pope.

Visit to rural America

On October 4, 1979, Pope John Paul II came to Des Moines, Iowa, and celebrated Mass outside the city at Living History Farms. The pope came at the invitation of Iowa farmer Jon Hayes.

I drove from Madison to Des Moines with two priests. We were fortunate that a family in Des Moines offered their hospitality for us to stay in their home.

The following day we drove out to Living History Farms. It was quite a sight! An estimated crowd of 350,000 filled the hills around the farm, with an altar on a platform where the pope celebrated Mass. It reminded me of the site of the Sermon on the Mount.

The pope spoke directly to American farmers, reminding them that the rich soil was a gift from God to all mankind as a means of sustaining life for generations.

“You who live in the heartland of America have been entrusted with some of the earth’s best land,” the pontiff said. “You are stewards of some the most important resources God has given to the world. Therefore, conserve the land well.”

I was lucky to be placed in the very front row of the crowd in the press area. After the Mass, the Holy Father started to walk over to shake our hands. Unfortunately, he was late for his next stop in Chicago, so he was veered away towards his helicopter. I was very close to the pope, but didn’t get to shake his hand.

Close encounters

I was in the presence of St. John Paul II two more times. One was during the Diocese of Madison’s Golden Jubilee pilgrimage to Rome in 1996.

When we went to St. Peter’s Square for an audience, the Holy Father did not appear. Our pilgrimage group stood below his window, but he did not come out. We wondered if he was ill. Not even Polish pilgrims singing songs in Polish brought the pope out on his balcony.

In 2004, a year before the pope’s death, my husband and I again went on a pilgrimage to Rome. This time the Holy Father did appear in St. Peter’s Square and drove by in his popemobile right in front of us. We weren’t able to shake hands, but we saw him up close.

At that audience, he blessed all the sacred objects we brought with us, and he blessed a Rosary that I still use to this day. The Rosary includes the cross that the pope used, so every time I pray the Rosary, I am reminded of him.

Pope John Paul II’s travels throughout the world brought him and his teachings to people of all ages and faiths. He was such a wonderful ambassador for Christ and the Church. I never shook his hand, but I will always be grateful for knowing him.