The day the pope came

The theme was peace, and New York will never forget

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By Anne Buckley


A Catholic Digest Papal Visit Exclusive

The shoulder-to-shoulder crowd pressed against the store windows on Madison Ave., and spread solidly into the street at the corner of 51st St. The faces were all turned toward St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and there was a kind of spell over those thousands grouped in a solid, immobile mass.

On the terrace, a slender, radiant man in white cassock and scarlet cape endlessly raised his arms in greeting, endlessly smiled his warmth on the chill noon scene. Ecstatic secretaries from ad agencies gasped, “Oh, it’s beautiful!” “Oh, he’s wonderful!”

A young couple stood, arms linked, sharing the moment without speaking, etching the scene on their memories. A man pushed toward his wife and asked excitedly, “Did you see Cardinal Rugambwa?” The African cardinal’s face glowed and the man said, “You can’t miss him; he’s six-foot-four.”

Pope Paul VI was in New York City. His arrival and its historic significance had been well publicized. The route of his motorcade was marked out with police barricades, and everybody in town knew where to go to catch a glimpse. But now that he was here, the blasé city, which stifles a yawn about most celebrities, seemed totally unprepared for the thrill of seeing the pope on its own pavements.

Along the VanWyck Expressway youngsters cheered wildly while they waited for the motorcade to pass on its way from John F. Kennedy Airport to Manhattan. But when the pope’s limousine appeared, awe muffled the cheers and they waved little papal flags at the car.

Across the East River, at the foot of the Queensborough Bridge, the Xavier High School regimental band grouped smartly in blue uniforms and white gloves. Cadet Larry Weitsma of Hackensack, who was out front as bearer of the papal flag, worried about dropping it.

When police moved the 2nd Ave. barricade up closer to 60th St. where the pope would pass, the crowd just stood where it was. One officer said, “Look at that, the most orderly crowd I have ever seen!” Then he invited them to move forward.

Around the corner on 3rd Ave., a half-dozen students from Art and Design High School in Manhattan said they were playing hooky. As one of them sketched out a sign, “A & D Welcomes You,” a Jewish boy explained, “We’re here because this is the greatest thing that ever happened.”

Suddenly, the pope was there — and gone, the motorcade traveling, at that point, about 25 miles an hour. The people at the barricades and on the fire escapes and in the windows had barely a glimpse.

But two nuns sitting on a 3rd floor windowsill with their feet dangling outside grinned and waved a banner. In an apartment window a family exchanged delighted kisses.

Not much work was done in New York that day. A young executive was standing at the vantage point of a refuse bin near the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where the pope was to meet President Johnson.

“No,” said the young executive, “I’m not on lunch hour; I’m at the library doing research.” And in a restaurant on Madison Ave. a waitress said, “I’ll take the check. The cashier is outside trying to see the pope.”

Mrs. James Buffano, a German-born Lutheran from Ridgefield, New Jersey, shivered outside the New Weston Hotel, where she works in the cashier’s office, waiting for Pope Paul to pass from the cathedral to the Waldorf. “This is history,” she said. “It’s just the idea that I might get a glimpse of him. I hope it will help us toward peace, his being here. It will, if human beings have any sense.”

This was America’s own kind of welcome. It gained intensity as the day went on; awe gave way to affection. The motorcade slowed as it went down 5th Ave. and the greeting from the crowd was tremendous. Cheers were heard for perhaps the first time in history in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. At noon, Newark’s Bishop John J. Dougherty, who as head of the U.S. bishops’ delegation to the United Nations had met the pope at the airport, said that the Holy Father was “tremendously impressed at this incredible demonstration. He is deeply moved — commosso would be the Italian word.”

Some people ran around most of the day, trying to see him at various stages of his trip. Two girls from Rome, New York, who had gotten up at 4 a.m. to catch a plane, followed him until their plane left at 10 p.m. Others came great distances just for a look, and then turned around and went home, like the couple and two tots who left Willimantic, Connecticut, at 3 a.m., ate sandwiches for breakfast, and waved at the Pontiff on the VanWyck expressway.

The security arrangements for the visit were a masterpiece of concerted effort by the New York police, Secret Service, and FBI. Asked if he had seen the pope at all as he stood there, back to the motorcade, eyes trained on the crowd for most of the day, a patrolman confessed with a grin, “I peeked.”

During the motorcade there were bullhorn orders to people to get off roofs and to close windows. But later, security did not seem as rigid as it was in the morning. The preparations had been expertly carried out, and the obvious affection of the crowd made officials relax.

“This visit will strengthen the faith of every Catholic in the U.S.,” said a woman from Troy, New York, who had come the day before with her 9-year-old daughter.

Mrs. John McHugh of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, saw a bigger picture: the implications for peace in the pope’s United Nations appearance. She had been there with her daughter-in-law. “The Holy Father reminded us that we are too proud, and it is true! We look down on other people, both those from emerging nations and the ones right here in our own country. God never intended that way. I think Pope Paul’s message will inspire people. Whether this visit can bring about peace — that remains to be prayed for.”

James Ferris, a Greek Orthodox waiter in a 2nd Ave. restaurant near the UN, was thinking of inter-religious dialogue. “A wonderful man. I like his trips to other counties. They are doing a great deal to break down prejudice. Yes, I was impressed when he met Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras in the Holy Land.”

And then James Ferris said it all, for the U.S.: “But this time he came here, to my country!”

The cheering in Yankee Stadium turned into a gasp from 90,000 throats as the luminous reed of a man stood up in the open car just after beginning his circle-and-a-half of the stadium. Then the cheering mounted, flashbulbs popped like a thousand fireflies in the stands, a nun made the Sign of the Cross, and priests waved black hats in the air.

It was the climax of a day full of thrilling encounters between the Catholic pope and pluralistic America. The crowd in Yankee Stadium to assist at the papal Mass was the first to see him in an open car without a bubble top, looking radiant and untired by his exhausting day, in a setting specifically designed for him.

Bunting in papal gold and white decorated the stands; billboards were covered with blue drapes; the flags of the pope, the U.S., and the United Nations flew; and the altar waited, shimmering gold and white in the center of the field.

The cheering, which had mounted to a thunder as Pope Paul stepped briskly up the steps to the altar, subsided as he knelt before it to prepare for Mass. During the sacrifice the elevated trains slid by the stadium, slowed to a whisper, and more flashbulbs popped from their windows.

The crowd had been rehearsed in the hymns and responses before the Mass began, but never was participation so spontaneous. The Rev. Horace Hughes of the United Church of Christ in Cresskill sang out, “Praise to the Lord!” and answered the Pontiff’s prayers, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy.” He said he was thrilled to be there, especially since he grew up “feeling shut out of the Catholic Church,” but now, like other Protestants, “felt welcome.”

Peace was the word that recurred most frequently in the Proper of the Mass. “Peace be to you,” the commentator pointed out, was Christ’s farewell to his Apostles at the Last Supper, the first Mass.

As the Vicar of Christ in 1965 stood before a microphone in Yankee stadium preaching a sermon, the feedback and his Italian accent made it almost impossible to understand what he was saying. Still, one oft-repeated word was heard by all; it was peace. “You must love peace. Peace must be built. Peace be to you.”

The Prayer of the Faithful, too, was a plea for “that peace which the world cannot give,” in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, the poet of peace and the saint of the day. Rendered in the languages of the United Nations: English, French (by an African), Spanish, Chinese, and Russian (by lay lectors) it summed up the day.

At the elevation of the newly consecrated Body and Blood of Christ, the pope slowly made a full turn so that all could see the Host and the Chalice he held, there on the circular platform.

After the Mass he greeted each of the 12 children to whom he had given Communion, and from whom he had received the Offertory gifts.

Many people watched with tears in their eyes the tender meeting between pope and children of many nations. Next, he greeted Orthodox clergymen in a scene reminiscent of the famous one when he and Patriarch Athenagoras exchanged the kiss of peace in the Holy Land.

Then he was back in the car, slowly making his way out of the stadium. More cheers, some choruses of “Long Live the Pope” (which sounded strange on the lips of Americans and were quickly replaced by the more familiar applause), cheers, waves, and remarks like that of Mrs. Joseph Then of Wayne: “It’s just wonderful, seeing the pope! He’s so human.”

Then he was gone, and the crowds stood there gaping after him, smiling, wondering a little if it all had really happened. CD

A Catholic Digest Classic, originally appeared in Catholic Digest January 1966. Condensed from the Advocate, 37 Evergreen Place, East Orange, NJ, 07102. Oct. 7, 1965. Copyright 1965 by the Advocate, and reprinted with permission.

Anne Buckley