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Discussion of the Pope's Visit to Rural Iowa

posted on October 2, 2009 at 10:36 AM


In the studio now to talk about the significance of the visit, on this 30th anniversary, we have with us Monsignor Stephen Orr, pastor of Our Lady's Immaculate Heart Parish in Ankeny and Monsignor Frank Bognanno, pastor of Christ the King parish in Des Moines. 

Yeager: Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming in and watching that with us.  What was that experience like to watch that again?

Monsignor Frank Bognanno: It was like you were almost there again.  And as I mentioned at the end of the video I thought boy, am I relieved the mass is over with.

Yeager: Just like some people are when mass is really over with but that's a whole other subject.  Is it still a powerful message 30 years later?

Monsignor Stephen Orr: Oh, I think the message is powerful.  Certainly one of the things that I think it did is it just reinforced the faith of lots of people, put faith kind of in the public eye again and no matter what faith you were there were people out there that day of every tradition and every faith and I think there was a real sense of pride.

Yeager: Was that one of the major significant points of that is how it was across so many religions?

Monsignor Stephen Orr: Well, certainly Bishop Dingman wanted to be sure that everyone felt included and so the ecumenical prayer service before we began the actual mass before the Holy Father came involved many different traditions and people afterwards said again and again, I am not a Catholic but I felt a great sense of pride.  It was all about our faith and our God.

Yeager: I had asked during the piece, that's the only time that a Pope has come to Iowa.  When you sit back and think about that and you look -- I think the first time when you saw the crowd, 340,000 was the estimate, you had an expression I think you said it, wow, how did we do that.  How did you do that?

Monsignor Frank Bognanno: I don't know, it must have been the Holy Spirit.  But really I think there were four communities involved.  There was an Iowa experience.  You had obviously the Catholic Church but then you had the business community believe it or not.  They closed businesses, they lent us secretaries and vice presidents and computers.  And then you had the interfaith community as well.  And then you had the government, you had Governor Ray, the National Guard, the civil engineers who built the bridges and even President Carter is the one who, it was his idea, it was President's Carter's idea that he should have the presidential helicopters out here because this is the only place in the U.S. on that visit that helicopters were used.  So, it was an experience of a lot of people working together.

Yeager: Now, 340,000 people and you kind of touched on it a little bit that those weren't all Catholics that were there.  But when you look at that large crowd were they coming to see the person who is the Pope or were they coming to see Pope John Paul II?

Monsignor Stephen Orr: Well, certainly I think it was probably both.  Pope John Paul II was a young pope, he was only 58 when he was elected, he had energy, he had life, he kind of spoke to a whole different generation of folks and I think it captured, he captured the attention of lots of people.  One of the big banners that was in the middle of that crowd said, we Lutherans love John Paul too.  It just really caught your attention that in fact there were more people that were inspired by his presence and his message and they all came together.

Yeager: Now, if it were a different Pope would we have had the same crowd?  If it was a different time in Pope John Paul II's career would we have had a different crowd?

Monsignor Frank Bognanno: I think Monsignor Orr said this a little bit earlier, that had it been maybe ten years later when people knew him better, much more highly regarded, involved in all kinds of international things that perhaps it would have been a larger crowd.  That is just speculation.  I think people want faith, people want to know that there's more than just what we experience as human beings and that's why I think people of every faith were lifted up, at least God exists, God is here, God loves us, we are his partners, God is going to help us.  I think the message of faith is what people maybe unknowingly want to hear, that's what they are looking for.

Yeager: We're going to discuss it a little bit here in the second part of this program when we discuss more of why he was here.  When you just look at all of this 30 years later has it sunk in?  When did it most sink in what had happened, what we just watched?

Monsignor Stephen Orr: I think it depended on who you were and what you were about in those days.  Certainly the affirmation for farmers, I had many, many farmers afterwards say, I had never felt so proud to be a farmer than for the Pope to get up and say, the church esteems your work, your labor.  As you recall, that was the time when the farm crisis was really beginning, a lot of people struggling and no matter what happened in the end they said, I took a great sense of joy and pride from the fact that on worldwide television and attention I as a farmer was recognized and that felt very good.

Yeager: The motto on the football helmets was America needs farmers, it was the world needs farmers was kind of that message right there.  The significance of this trip to Iowa, I think you mentioned you kind of had his itinerary.  Tell me those cities again in the order that they were when he came on that trip.

Monsignor Frank Bognanno: Right, right, he started off I think in Baltimore and then went to New York and then he went to Philadelphia, Boston and then he came to Iowa and then from here to Chicago and then to Washington, DC.  So, that was the itinerary.

Yeager: None of those names sound like they go together.  Iowa does not fit with the cities that you named.

Monsignor Frank Bognanno: Well, we were an afterthought because they took two hours out of the Chicago visit and two hours out of the Philadelphia visit and they said, okay, you've got him for four hours, what do you want to do?  Of course, it was more like what does he want to do.

Monsignor Stephen Orr: But as you saw in the film that we just watched Bishop Dingman acknowledged this never would have happened without Joe Hays, the farmer who just said, I think the Holy Father should come to Iowa, we're the bread basket, we're the center of feeding a lot of the world, he needs to come and acknowledge that and I think that is what caught their attention.

Yeager: Do you have conversations with Joe at all or have you since then?

Monsignor Stephen Orr: Oh, sure, on an off and on basis I would see Joe and he just beams from ear to ear.

Yeager: You had a story when you worked at the Vatican when you would be introduced to the Pope.  What is that story?  You would say you're from Iowa.  Where did he pick it up from there?

Monsignor Stephen Orr: About four years after he came to Iowa I was invited to go to Rome and work on the American Seminary staff there so at different times I would be introduced to him and they would say, Des Moines.  He'd say, yes, Des Moines, I was there.  He said, very beautiful, I loved it.  He says you are a rural diocese.  And you heard him say that when he was talking at St. Patrick's as well.  He remembered it well.  In fact, Archbishop Martinka said that he often spoke of his visit to Des Moines after that first visit to the United States.

Yeager: If we were to have this same type of opportunity again do you think this trip would have that same impact that this one in 1979 had?

Monsignor Frank Bognanno: I think it would have an impact in the sense that, again, people know God exists, they are looking to make that connection, their work and their God and I think there would be that draw.  I think there would be a tremendous draw because I think there is such a hunger for tell me why I'm a farmer, tell me why I work every day, let me know that God loves me, that God has a plan, he's right in there helping me, working with me, I'm his partner.  I think there would be a very big -- in fact, they say that today at the Vatican when Pope Benedict has his audiences that the audiences are larger out in Vatican Square than they were with Pope John Paul.  So, I think there would be a big draw.

Monsignor Stephen Orr: People are searching, people are searching and I think they would come.  But I think the other part of it was the fact that the Holy Father came here and got out among the people, that kind of brought that whole reality of that spiritual leader of the church into focus and made him a bit more real.

Yeager: That was mentioned in the commentary a couple of times how he had stopped and talked to the children or talked to -- he didn't sorry guys, the ones with the collars, he didn't always want to talk to you, he wanted to talk to the people, the children that were out there.

Monsignor Stephen Orr: Very much a people person, that was his real skill that he just could relate to people, he just made everybody that he was around feel like you're the only one I'm paying attention to.

Yeager: Very powerful thing.  Final 30 seconds on those 30 years since.

Monsignor Frank Bognanno: Well, it was a pastoral visit, he mentioned that.  In other words, he was the shepherd, he came to visit his people and all people but he wanted to show them that he is a pastor, a shepherd that you can get near, who cares about you, who loves you, who cares about your life and that's what I remember most.

Yeager: That's Monsignor Frank Bognanno, he is with Christ the King Catholic parish in Des Moines.  Sitting next to him is Monsignor Stephen Orr with Our Lady's Immaculate Heart parish in Ankeny.  Gentlemen, thank you so very much for coming in to discuss this. 

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