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Diocesan priests meet papal saints

By RENEE WEBB, Globe senior reporter
(Email Renee)

Not everyone can say they have met a saint, but several in the Diocese of Sioux City have done just that.

Double privilege

In fact, Msgr. Roger Augustine, met both Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II. Both men were canonized April 27 by Pope Francis in Rome.

Msgr. Augustine, senior pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in Sioux City, was a seminarian at the Pontifical North American College (PNAC) in Rome when Pope Pius XII died and Pope John XXIII was elected in October of 1958.

The priest noted he was able to meet Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII, prior to the start of the conclave.

“A group of six or seven seminarians were visiting a church in Rome when here comes a group of people, one of them being Cardinal Angelo Roncalli and his entourage who were also visiting the church,” recalled Msgr. Augustine, who is slated to retire this July. “We visited with him a little bit and he went into the conclave after that.”

He said he was in St. Peter’s Square when it was announced Cardinal Roncalli was named pope and he was able to work his way into St. Peter’s for the coronation of the pope.

While in Rome during his seminary studies, Msgr. Augustine noted that he was able to attend several Masses the pope celebrated for feast days and other special occasions.

The priest said it was easy to tell he was a very holy person.

“There were things about him when you would see him at Mass and the things he would speak about. He was very concerned about peace in the world and concerned that the church become prominent to bring about peace and justice to the world,” said Msgr. Augustine, who noted that another thing John XXIII was known for was calling the Second Vatican Council.

Still in Rome at the time, Msgr. Augustine called it a surprising time in the church because no one had expected the pope to call a council.

“While that was exciting, but just as exciting is that I was able to visit with Pope John Paul II during an ad limina visit when I was administrator of the diocese,” he explained. “I was at the Vatican representing the diocese. It was a privilege to be in the same room with him and speak with him.”

When the Diocese of Sioux City was a vacant see after then Bishop Daniel DiNardo was moved to the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Msgr. Augustine was elected by the diocesan College of Consultors to serve as administrator. The trip to the Vatican came in November of 2004.

Ravaged by Parkinson’s disease, Msgr. Augustine noted the pope was quite ill at the time of the visit. He had seen the pope as a younger man in 1979 when the pontiff visited Living History Farms in Des Moines.

“I was there with a multitude of priests who were there to help with Communion,” he said.

Given that he was able to meet two saints, Msgr. Augustine said it has been a privilege of his priesthood.

Young and aging JPII

Msgr. Kevin McCoy, pastor at Holy Trinity Parish of Webster County, said he was a seminarian at PNAC beginning in the fall of 1977. He was in Rome to witness the funeral rites of Pope Paul VI and the election of Pope John Paul I, only to relive a papal death and election in October 1978.

He was present in St. Peter’s Square for the election of Cardinal Karol Wojtyla as pope.

“The excitement in the square following the ‘white smoke’ was notable as when the cardinal announced ‘habemus papam’ from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, using the Latin formula prescribed for this introduction, he proclaimed Karolum Wojtyla,” said Msgr. McCoy, who noted they then announced the new pope took the name of John Paul II.

He acknowledged there was much confusion in the square because no one seemed to know anything about Cardinal Wojtyla and no media had ranked him among the “papabile.” The two frontrunners had been Italian cardinals.

“Well, of course, the rest is history as they say,” Msgr. McCoy said. “The new pope endeared himself to the locals and at his age brought new vibrancy to the papacy.” At the time, he noted the socio-political climate of Rome and greater Italy was in turmoil.

The priest’s first opportunity to meet John Paul II came at Christmas midnight Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica in 1978. He was among the seminarians from PNAC who were selected to serve and after Mass the pope met each of the servers.

Msgr. McCoy noted that after his second year of theology, he returned home for the summer and extended his stay in Iowa so he could attend the pope’s historic visit at Living History Farm in Des Moines. While he was not able to meet the pope on that visit, he explained it did set up an opportunity for him to engage the pope on the next encounter that came on Feb. 22, 1980 when the pope came to PNAC to celebrate Mass.

“I sang in the seminary choir so I had no opportunity to serve at the Mass, but following the Eucharistic celebration, we all had the opportunity to greet the new pope. We lined the hallways leading to the refectory (dining hall), and the pope greeted us all with a handshake. As he came to me, I said to him, ‘Thank you, Holy Father, for your visit to Des Moines, Iowa,’” Msgr. McCoy said.

The pope stopped in his tracks, put his hands on the then-seminarian’s lapels and said to him, “Des Moines?

Yes, Iowa. Very good.” The pontiff said this as he sort of slapped the seminarian’s chest and moved on to the next guy.

As a graduate student in Rome, he was able to assist at a number of papal Masses, but Msgr. McCoy’s next opportunity to meet John Paul II came when he accompanied Bishop Lawrence D. Soens on the ad limina visit to Rome. Msgr. McCoy, who was the diocese’s moderator of the curia/chancellor at the time, was able to meet the pope in his private chapel.

More encounters with John Paul II came when Msgr. McCoy returned to Rome in 1998 to serve at PNAC.

“I did see him a few different occasions involving my responsibility, but these were more photo ops than anything else. It was difficult to remember his vibrancy of the 1970s only now to see him so crippled,” he said.
When Msgr. Mc Coy became rector of PNAC, a role he had from 2001 to 2006, there were several brief meetings “but none of those were as memorable as those occasions from 1978 to 1980 when a young man from Iowa would find himself meeting a man who would have a profound impact not only on the life of the Catholic Church but the political face of Europe and the Soviet bloc.”

He credited Pope John Paul II for undermining the footings of the Iron Curtain.

“The pope’s travels made him far more than an ambassador for Christ; his life had a political influence that was exerted through the outreach of the Vatican’s Secretary of State – the church’s international relations with world nations,” Msgr. McCoy said.

Encounters with a saint

Father David Hemann, pastor at St. Michael Church in Sioux City, was a seminarian in Rome from 1981 to 1985. Through the years there were numerous encounters, but a few close up and personal.

“The time in Rome were some of the most difficult and yet glorious times of my life,” he said. “I enjoyed the constant companionship of a wonderful neighbor by the name of Pope John Paul II. We would often walk over into St. Peter’s Square late at night and we would see his chapel light on, consistently every night. We felt very connected to him.”

In September of 1981, he was among the new seminarians to visit Pope John Paul II at the pope’s summer retreat house.

“He was just recovering from being shot that May,” Father Hemann said. “I remember looking at him when he came out on the balcony. He had rosy cheeks and I remember that he looked healthy.”

The priest has a tape of the pope’s address, in which John Paul II said, “May your commitment to Christ bring you closer into the heart of the church in service to the people.”

When the American seminarians heard this message, Father Hemann noted, they went nuts and the pope had quipped, “This response was to be expected.”

After being ordained a transitional deacon, his deacon class of about 30 was able to pray the rosary in May of 1984 with John Paul II in the Pope Paul VI audience hall.

“There is a picture of me leaning out around about four guys and giving the pope the tip of my fingers as he is reaching out to give me the tips of his fingers,” Father Hemann said.

He recalled thinking the next time he was going to meet with the pope, he’d just relax and not try so hard. At the next meeting, the pope happened to walk up and stand right in front of him, so Father Hemann put his hand on John Paul II’s shoulder.

“That was at a general audience. The pope did address the deacon class at the North American College,” said Father Hemann. “He told us, may God help us and be generous.”

His first encounter with the pope, however, wasn’t in Rome. He attended the papal visit at Living History Farms as a college student.

It was during a trip back to Rome in 1999 for a North American College reunion that Father Hemann had another encounter with John Paul II and personally experienced the friendliness and warmth of the pope.

The priest had taken one of his CDs along and extended it out to the Holy Father. The pope blessed it and gave it back.

“I said, ‘No, Holy Father, this is for you,’” Father Hemann recalled. “He looked at the picture and said, ‘That’s you.’ And he said, ‘Thank you.’ When I gave him the CD, that was the highlight.”

The priest said the pope had a certain glow and he could tell Pope John Paul II was a saint.

“I was speechless at his presence; I could feel his holiness and his solidness,” Father Hemann said. “I knew I was in the presence of a great man who had suffered greatly in his life and had been single-hearted for the Lord in service of him and his church.”

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