So Hays, a devout Catholic, sat down at the dining room table of his turn-of-the-century farmhouse and drafted an invitation on lined notebook paper. Reasoning that global hunger is a papal concern, he described Iowa as the world's breadbasket. "The Pope cares about mankind. Mankind needs food to survive. This is where we produce the food," he points out. His letter, he says, was prompted by a genuine fondness for the ebullient John Paul. "I think he's really neat," says Joe. "In Mexico, he climbed a mountain to see the people. At a wedding party in Italy, he kissed the bride. Holy smoke, who does this guy think he is—a human being?"
Reverent but not awestruck, Hays approached his correspondence matter-of-factly. "I just handwrote it," he says. "It's just a plain invitation from a simple man in Truro, l-oh-way." There was nothing plain and simple, however, about the way the message reached the Vatican. Hays first discussed the letter with his parish priest, Msgr. Paul Connelly, then turned it over to the Rev. Maurice J. Dingman, Bishop of Des Moines. Eventually the appeal was sent by courier on a private jet to a bishop in Washington, D.C. and he extended the invitation to Rome. The Pope accepted through similar bureaucratic channels.
John Paul's itinerary does not include a stop at Hays' 90-acre farm on Rural Route #1. The closest the Pontiff will get is the site, 35 miles away, of Iowa's Living History Farms, a vast historical exhibit that can accommodate several hundred thousand people for the Pope's outdoor Mass October 4. Hays, however, will join the Pontiff's official host, Bishop Dingman, in welcoming their honored guest.
The son of a Catholic convert, Hays was an altar boy for 17 years. "I considered the priesthood," he says with a grin, "until I considered girls." (He has considered only one seriously; Ann Adams, the mother of his four children, has been Mrs. Hays since 1961.) Obeying the economic imperatives of small family farming, Hays commutes weekdays to the John Deere plant outside Des Moines, where he works as a research mechanic on experimental farm implements. His religion is strong, he maintains, because "I practice it daily. I like to remind people that goodness is before us every day—in pretty sunsets, in the fair rains of spring."
Hays lounges on his front steps, contemplating a bountiful providence and coping with his newfound notoriety. His mailbox has been stuffed with congratulations, with the occasional crank letter thrown in. One typewritten note was signed "Jesus Christ." "I thought it was from some kook," Joe told friends at the plant, "except for the angel who delivered it."
Hays' only regret is that the Pope won't be paying a house call. How would the spiritual leader of 700 million Catholics entertain himself in such humble surroundings? "I think he'd like to sit out in the lawn chair," muses Hays, "maybe have a beer, and see what God created. Iowa's got some of the best parts."
When the shoes of the fisherman touch down on the rich soil of America's heartland next month, fellow Iowans will have Joe Hays to thank. Once Hays learned that John Paul II's week-long visit to the U.S. included a stop in Chicago, the 39-year-old farmer decided, "Golly, he ought to come and see us too. I think I'll write him a letter."