A Trip Down Memory Lane

Last night, I cuddled up with my youngest to do First Communion homework. In the Dynamic Catholic sacramental prep book, there’s a page of cartoon character saints, and I started telling him the stories—what we know and what are legends about them. One of the saints was John Paul II.

I had to leap up and go get this:

When I was five years old, my parents packed me, my big sister, my little sister, and both my grandmothers into an RV and drove to Iowa to attend the Pope’s Mass.

Here’s what I remember: it was a really, really, really long walk to the bathrooms. And they were porta potties.

Yup, that’s all I remember.

But I’ve always treasured this book. I love pulling it out to show the kids the snapshots my mom glued into the front cover, and the letter I got when, evidently, I wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II afterward. (I don’t remember that, either.)

I don’t think about that Mass very often, because we were far, far away and I was short and I probably saw none of it. But in the years since, I made a really good friend who lives in Des Moines, and the first time I visited, I recognized their diocesan symbol as the one from the cover of my book. I got unreasonably excited.

And last night, when for the first time I actually started reading the book (rather than just the handwritten note on the inside cover), I realized I now know something about the place where the Mass was held. We haven’t made it to Des Moines’ Living History Farm yet, but I know right where it is from past trips.

I was also startled to read the words “rural life” in the invitation sent to the Pope. (“Possibly one of the most young and enthusiastic groups of representatives in the Church in America today is our own rural life people.”)

I only encountered Catholic Rural Life five years ago, when it was spoken well of in conversations with NFP contacts living in Ohio. I learned that this organization espouses a beautiful and very Catholic view of the relationship between us and the earth. Unfortunately, no one in my highly agricultural state has started a chapter. Being a farm kid myself, this makes me sad.

It’s striking to me, as an adult reading this book about an event I have only the haziest memory of, how strongly the vision of Catholic Rural Life was woven into that Mass. Repurposing wood from a corn crib to make the altar, building an “asymmetrical” platform for the altar so as to work with the contour of the land, and so on.

I suppose the reason I’m sharing these thoughts today is that it was really affirming to see that John Paul II, the darling of traditional Catholics, tied himself so closely in this event to a movement that prioritized stewardship of the earth. The false dichotomy between “traditional” or “conservative” Catholicism and care of the earth is a source of great grief to me; I can’t fathom why people deny climate change and resist the Church’s consistent teaching about societal responsibility to ensure environmental stewardship. But it’s especially baffling in the rural community, who would (one would think) be more in tune with the land. Yet it seems like rural areas are the center of resistance to climate action.

It was lovely to see that at least in the pope’s Iowa visit, there was no false dichotomy between “traditional” Catholicism and stewardship of the earth.

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