Ruthian Cheers and the Bishop of Rome: Pope Paul VI’s Mass at Yankee Stadium

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As the Archdiocese of New York prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis on September 24, 2015, the Archives is taking a look back at the previous papal visits. Pope Francis will be the fourth pope to visit New York City and to speak at the United Nations since Blessed Paul VI’s historic arrival in 1965.  Other posts in the series look at the cancelled 1994 Papal Visit, Papal Visit Memorabilia, Papal Mass Chalices, the planning of Papal Visits, and past tickets and programs.  Today’s guest post was written by Will Whitmore, School Minister at Mercersburg Academy.

For much of its history in the United States, the Roman Catholic Church was viewed as a church of immigrants. It was distinct from the Protestant majority due to its hierarchical nature, different language, and customs. Due to this lower position in society it was seen as an un-American entity. However, the attitude of intolerance began to change throughout the twentieth century as the immigrants of the past generation became assimilated to American life.  Coming to the United States in 1965, Pope Paul VI was visiting a church that had transformed from an immigrant entity to an established group in a thriving society. Even with this transformation, the papacy was still a foreign office to many in America. This trip would provide the Pope with the opportunity to introduce himself and the office he held to country.

Pope Paul VI visit to New York City

The altar and the crowd at the 1965 Papal Mass at Yankee Stadium.

On October 4, 1965, Pope Paul VI made history as the first pope to travel to the United States. He would visit only for a day, concluding his trip with Mass at Yankee Stadium. The Mass said that night was the first Papal Mass celebrated in the western hemisphere. The service was televised live throughout the nation on ABC, NBC, and CBS. While Yankee Stadium would have been a familiar landscape in American culture, the stadium was transformed for the sacred event. For many, the Pope’s brief trip to the United States reached its climax in Yankee Stadium. The commemorative book on Pope Paul VI’s visit, An Instrument of Your Peace, stated:

Officially his mission was to the United Nations, and the impact there of his speech and his presence was monumental. But it was at Yankee Stadium, a yawning sports arena transformed for a memorable night into a magnificent outdoor basilica, that the Holy Father’s trip to America reached its spiritual zenith.[i]

The nature of this event created a significant day in American religious history. Though the Pope had traveled primarily for diplomatic purposes, he had not neglected his work as a spiritual leader, and his Mass created a symbolic bridge from Vatican City to the South Bronx by inviting the entire United States into Yankee Stadium for worship.

Due to its place within American culture, it was fitting that Yankee Stadium was the setting for the introduction of the papacy to the United States. The pope was not another foreign leader coming to America for the first time, one with a similar history and ideals as most Americans, but a celibate monarch in a hierarchical church.  By having the climactic end to his visit at a baseball stadium, especially the highly symbolic Yankee Stadium, the Pope entered a space familiar to Americans to complete the process of introducing himself and the office he held to the United States. Life magazine used the language of American culture to describe Pope Paul’s entrance by comparing the fanfare present to Babe Ruth’s reception in the same space.[ii] Using baseball language affirmed the pope’s standing as one who belonged on the field at Yankee Stadium. He was no longer an outsider, he was the man who succeeded Peter in the office of church leader, and, for that night, was the vicar of Ruth’s popularity in Yankee Stadium. By concluding his introductory visit to the United States in Yankee Stadium, Paul VI inserted himself directly into American culture; captivating a space that had been home to America’s heroes. Through the venue of Yankee Stadium, the papacy was introduced to the American people.

[i] An Instrument of Your Peace, ed. Edward T. Fleming (Indianapolis: Curtis Publishing, 1965),158,163.

[ii] Jessup, “Pope Paul’s Historic Day in America,” Life, 50.

Will Whitmore serves as School Minister at Mercersburg Academy, an independent boarding school in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. He earned his Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, where his Master’s thesis focused on the Papal Masses at Yankee Stadium. Whitmore is working on his PhD at the University of Gloucestershire, where his research focuses on chaplaincy within the NFL and Barclay’s Premier League.

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