The six-day trip to Washington, D.C., New York and Philadelphia that awaits Pope Francis will bear little resemblance to the first papal visit to the United States 50 years ago when Pope Paul VI dashed around New York in a 14-hour whirlwind tour.
Just after 9:30 a.m. on the clear but blustery morning of October 4, 1965, an Alitalia plane landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport and down a waiting staircase charged Pope Paul VI with his red woolen cape flapping in the wind. If he seemed like a pontiff in a hurry, it was for good reason. Although he had just made the longest journey ever undertaken by a sitting pope, the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church planned to make the first papal visit to the United States—or to the Western Hemisphere for that matter—a brief one of just 14 hours.
It was perhaps fitting that the 68-year-old pope first set foot in America at an airport named for the country’s first Roman Catholic president, who had been assassinated nearly two years earlier. The Italian-born pontiff stepped before the microphones and read from a fluttering page in his accented English, “Greetings to you, America. The first pope to set foot upon your land blesses you with all his heart.”
Like a tourist on a layover, he set off to cram as much as he could into the next few hours. In a specially crafted limousine fitted with running boards to carry six security guards, the pope rode through the streets of New York on an elevated seat underneath a plexiglass cover to protect him from the chill. At the pontiff’s request, the motorcade took a circuitous route through Harlem and Central Park before arriving at New York’s Catholic heart, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. After the pope delivered a benediction, a most unusual noise was heard in the normally staid cathedral—cheers and wild applause.
Following lunch at the residence of New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, the pope made the one-block journey east to the Waldorf-Astoria and ascended to the 35th floor to meet with President Lyndon Johnson. Three prior American presidents had papal audiences, but those were all overseas, including a meeting between President Kennedy and Pope Paul the day after his 1963 coronation. The meeting required a bit of delicate diplomacy as the United States did not have formal diplomatic relations with the Vatican (and would not until 1984), in part due to concerns about the separation of church and state. During their 50-minute meeting, the two men discussed poverty, race relations and the Vietnam War. The pope presented the president with a large painting entitled “The Resurrected Christ.” Perhaps forgetting that “blessed are the humble,” Johnson gave the pope an autographed picture of himself in a silver frame along with a small gold globe.
Kennedy’s spirit was omnipresent when the pope addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. As the pope waited to speak to the representatives of all but one of the 117 member nations—Communist Albania boycotted the speech—he sat in a large beige leather chair last used by the 35th president. In a talk delivered largely in the diplomatic language of French, the pope pleaded for peace in a nuclear world: “No more war! Never again war! Peace, it is peace that must guide the destinies of peoples and of all mankind.” He also invoked the spirit of the slain president by remarking, “Listen to the words of the great departed John Kennedy: ‘Mankind must put an end to war, or war will put an end to mankind.’”
After the speech, Jacqueline Kennedy—clad in black except for strings of white pearls—led a receiving line along with Senators Robert F. and Edward Kennedy inside the delegates’ lounge. On bended knee, the former First Lady kissed the Holy Father’s ring and then blinked back tears while he offered words of condolence.
After sunset, nearly 100,000 people shivered and prayed inside Yankee Stadium as the pope celebrated a nighttime “Mass of Peace” from an altar erected behind second base. For at least one chilly night, New York’s baseball cathedral was transformed into a church—with blue bunting covering the beer advertisements. The chants of “Viva il Papa” (“Long live the pope”) that echoed through the old rafters of “The House That Ruth Built” rivaled those normally delivered for pinstriped heroes like Mickey Mantle.
Befitting the “city that never sleeps,” Pope Paul gave no thought to shut-eye. Around 10 p.m., a Catholic high-school band and exploding fireworks greeted the Holy Father as he, like 50 million people before him, visited the grounds of the World’s Fair in Queens, now in its final weeks after a two-year run. The living embodiment of the fair’s theme—“Peace Through Understanding”—the pope toured the Vatican Pavilion and said a silent prayer as he gazed upon Michelangelo’s Pieta, on loan from St. Peter’s Basilica, in a darkened gallery.
Then it was back to Kennedy Airport. “God bless America, God bless you all!” said the pope in his parting benediction. And then before the clock struck midnight he was gone. The memories of Pope Paul’s visit, however, endure a half-century later. When Pope Francis celebrates mass at Madison Square Garden on Friday, he will invoke the spirit of his predecessor by using the same golden chalice held by Pope Paul at Yankee Stadium on that cold night in 1965.