By Father Bud Grant
The helicopter chopped its way through the air, over the cheering heads of 300,000 expectant pilgrims who had been waiting in the chilly October morning for the unbelievable event: the pope was coming to Iowa.
A Secret Service guy told me that the Holy Father wasn’t in that first chopper, but his would be the second one coming along soon. It had begun.
“Here in the heartland of America, in the middle of the bountiful fields at harvest time, I come to celebrate the Eucharist.”
A few minutes later we fell into the procession that worked its way up a knoll to the altar and now iconic four leafed cross banner. I stood behind the pope’s chair, looking over his shoulder to the throngs covering the surrounding hillsides. Banners flew, hands were raised, the noises of cheering and singing competed, a cacophony of color sprawled across the rolling farmland.
“To all of you who are farmers and all who are associated with agricultural production I want to say this: The church highly esteems your work.”
I remember smoothing the Holy Father’s palium, which had gotten twisted in the breeze. I remember that his miter — the conical shaped hat that I’d been assigned to hold — was white with orange bead work and gold thread…the inside moist from perspiration. This surprised me because it signaled that he was just like the rest of us.
“As one who has always been close to nature, let me speak to you today about the land, the earth, and that which earth has given and human hands have made…”
I remember him gently receiving the offertory gifts from the family who had invited him to the heartland of America, including a special needs child, whom he blessed and embraced. I remember that part of the liturgy whereat the priest prays for “your servant, Pope John Paul II, the bishop, the Sisters, the clergy, and all your faithful people.” I was curious to know what John Paul II would say.
He said: “for me your most unworthy servant…” and I was shocked. What do you mean, I thought, thousands of thousands of people had been sitting on this cold hillside since before dawn to see you and you are “unworthy”? Then it struck me…he was absolutely correct … he had to re-focus our attention on what we were doing, not to see him, but to see Him. We were celebrating the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
“Christ alone…is the bread of life. He alone satisfies the deepest hunger of humanity.”
I don’t remember the homily, I must confess. But since then I have read it many times and it has become important to me in a rather uncanny and idiosyncratic way. I went from Living History Farms that day to the seminary in Rome, then to rural parish ministry in Shelby County, Iowa, then to teach at St. Albert High School, and finally to St. Ambrose University to minister, teach, and pursue a doctorate in environmental ethics. While researching for my dissertation I realized that the first statement of a Roman Catholic environmental theology was delivered by John Paul II in Iowa on Oct. 4, 1979, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Did his homily that day, despite euphoria, distractions, fatigue, and nervousness, plant a seed?
I believe it did.
“The land is God’s gift entrusted to people from the very beginning. It is God’s gift, given by a loving creator as a means of sustaining the life which he had created. But the land is not only God’s gift; it is also man’s responsibility.”
(Fr. Grant is assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose and men’s soccer coach. He said he was selected “completely by chance” to serve as an acolyte at the Mass as a seminarian for the Diocese of Des Moines. He was attending the seminary at St. Ambrose at the time. “They needed all hands on deck for the celebration. I’m pretty sure that I was selected as miter bearer because I’m short!”)