The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

In 1978 world surprised with death of two popes, election of Pole

Time Capsule 1977-1979A 33-part series on history mined from the first 100 years of Arkansas Catholic and its predecessors.

Published: October 15, 2011   

Pro-life issues continued to be highlighted on the pages of The Guardian in 1977 and 1978.

Bishop Andrew J. McDonald requested Birthright be chartered in Little Rock to serve pregnant women in crisis pregnancies. Birthright was established in Paris in 1975, but the bishop wanted those who were considering abortions to have an alternative in central Arkansas. The Paris center was founded by Bob Cowie, who is now a deacon, and his wife, Betty.

"Pro-life issues confront Arkansas," was the headline of the Jan. 7, 1977, issue. Arkansas was one of 12 states where the state legislatures were considering the pro-life Human Life Amendment. The fourth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision was observed with a Pontifical Respect for Life Mass Jan. 23, 1977, at the Cathedral of St. Andrew. Father Ernest Hardesty, co-director of Birthright, said many people from around the diocese attended the Mass.

Pro-life advocates were even noted to charter a plane around the state in 1977 to conduct "anti-abortion workshops." Kenneth J. Hiegel, president of Hiegel Aviation, provided a plane to several diocesan employees and other pro-life supporters for the ministry.

Federal funding of abortions was also a popular topic in the newspaper. Catholics were encouraged to call their representative and senators to support the Hyde Amendment, which would prevent funds for abortions except when the life of the mother was at risk. Arkansas was one of 20 states in August 1977 that stopped using "welfare funds" for abortion. Previously Medicaid paid for about 300,000 abortions a year for "welfare women."

When Arkansas' representatives voted in December 1977 to OK federal money for abortions in certain cases, The Guardian declared, "Arkansas' four congressmen help legalize abortion."

Bishop McDonald issued a pro-life pastoral in 1978, five years after the Roe v. Wade decision.

"Permissive abortion may be symptomatic of a diminishing respect for all human life," he wrote.

After Vatican II

In the Guardian 1977-1979
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The Catholic Church was still evolving as changes made during Vatican Council II were implemented. The U.S. bishops spoke in April 1977 about the difficulty of catechesis at that time because of 20 years of "confusion, ambiguity, distrust, fear and even hostility and anger" caused by the changes.

"This confusion, in many cases, led to polarization, serious tension between those who are known as progressives and those who are conservative," the bishops' report to the Vatican said.

Also during Vatican II the permanent diaconate was restored in the countries that wanted it. The diaconate was approved in the United States in 1968. Bishop McDonald announced in the June 3, 1977, issue that the permanent diaconate program would be introduced in the diocese. Oct. 30, 1977, was named Diaconate Sunday to introduce Catholics to what the diaconate is and who is eligible to apply for the program.

"Hopefully by September 1978 the Diocese of Little Rock will begin its own first full class of applicants in the state," the article stated.

A series of articles appeared in the newspaper in the summer and fall 1977 to explain what a deacon does.

Bishop McDonald proclaimed the diaconate training at St. John Center would be a "second spring" for the site that was formerly St. John Seminary.

"While things will never be the same as they were in the good old days, we should all be glad to be part of this 'second spring,'" the bishop wrote.

The diocese's first permanent deacon was Dr. Victor J. Stepka Jr., a Jonesboro dentist, who was trained in Memphis for three years. He traveled to Memphis for two evening classes a week. He was ordained on Jan. 20, 1978. The U.S. was reported to have 2,387 deacons at the time.

Permission to distribute Communion in the hand was requested by about 50 countries, including the United States. It was approved by the Vatican in August 1977. Catechesis on the optional practice was held in the fall before it was implemented in Nov. 20, 1977.

Death of popes

Pope Paul VI died Aug. 6, 1978, at the age of 80. Bishop McDonald reacted, saying, "In our Church, for more than a century, God has favored us with holy, courageous, visionary men as his vicar upon earth. Each one has made his unique contributions to the world and to our Church."

The bishop said Pope Paul's gifts included his courage to promote life, peace and justice among all nations. A pontifical memorial Mass was held Aug. 13 at the Cathedral of St. Andrew.

A couple of weeks later, Cardinal Albino Luciani of Venice was elected pope and took the name Pope John Paul I. Known as a champion of the poor, he rode his bicycle to work when he was serving as a cardinal. When he was installed as pope, the ceremony was markedly less formal than previous papal ceremonies.

Under the headline, "New pope once had tuberculosis," in the Sept. 8, 1978, issue, the article explained, "Pope John Paul I is in generally good health, although he suffers considerably from climatic changes."

After 33 days in office, Pope John Paul I died of a heart attack. Bishop McDonald was planning a visit to Rome for his first ad limina visit when the news broke.

A National Catholic news article in The Guardian the next week began to speculate on which Italian cardinal would be the next pope.

In the Oct. 20, 1978, issue, an article described the new pope who was elected. The choice of a Polish cardinal was unexpected. Pope John Paul II had been an outspoken critic of Marxist repression. He was the first Polish pope.

"Can we be surprised anymore?" Bishop McDonald wrote. "The Holy Spirit is infinite in surprises."

"Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and to accept his authority," the pope said during his installation homily.

He made his first visit to the United States in September 1979 with stops in six cities, including New York and Boston.

Death of a bishop

Bishop Albert L. Fletcher, who retired in 1972 with the ordination of Bishop Andrew J. McDonald, died Dec. 6, 1979, of a heart attack. He was 83. The day seemed like an ordinary day for the retired bishop. He ate breakfast at the cathedral rectory where he lived, assisted at a funeral home, visited the chancery office to check his mail and then went to eat lunch alone at the Steak and Egg restaurant. He collapsed in the restaurant and was taken to St. Vincent Infirmary where he was administered the last rites.

Next week: Stories from 1980-1982

In the Guardian 1977-1979


Church is unable to ordain women to priesthood, Holy See reaffirms

ABC's 'Roots' drama hailed as meaningful

Several Episcopalians seek Catholic affiliation

Pope refuses to see renegade French archbishop

Holy Souls office robbed of $2,000

Sacrament of penance mandated to precede First Holy Communion

Diocese may have 28 seminarians

Vatican denies pope to retire


10 laymen named to new diocesan school commission

Ecumenical retirement home construction progressing

New ministries urged for nuns

Speculation mounts concerning next pope

Lou Holtz, Catholic and proud of it

Daughters shift their apostolate to Pine Bluff area

Reduction in arms, not total disarmament, urged by pope

Pope reaffirms 'Humanae Vitae,' terms it 'painful'

More sponsors needed for refugees

USCC asks Supreme Court to reverse abortion rulings

Janesko brothers round out 100 years as priests

Centennial rites at cathedral set

Communion under both species authorized on Sundays, holy days


Fort Smith Benedictines marking motherhouse centennial

Miracle at Lourdes officially accepted

Poles pressured to ignore papal visit

Gunshot, 'leukemia' have imperiled pope

Editor rounding out 25 years at Guardian

Statue of St. Andrew to front cathedral

Diocese enrolls 25 seminarians

LR diocese introducing Beginning Experience for widowed, divorced

Wear habits, nuns told

Mother Teresa hits abortion; pope attacks killing unborn


Venesian Inn, Tontitown: Italian food at its best

Enjoy Old Milwaukee: Take home a six-pack today

Birthright provides Christian advice for problem pregnancies

Click here to see searchable digital archives of The Guardian for 1911-1914, 1921 and 1945.

Click here to see the index of stories in Arkansas Catholic's time capsule series.

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