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The Pope Among Us

Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images
“Policemen alternated their Latin responses with objurgations to keep the entrance clear for the sacred Cadillacs; the Mayor had lost his car, and we could feel ourselves in Rome”

Aggiornamento is an ambiguous Italian word that can be impartially used to mean either "dawn" or "postponement." Once employed by Pope John XXIII, it came to mean something like "up-to-date," which could hardly have been Pope John's precise intention. When Paul VI appeared first in New York, windblown, on a platform on the dull, dirty apron of John F. Kennedy Airport, fervently crying his joy at the renewed discovery of America, one's first thought was how cruel the summons to aggiornamento can be to the Pope who takes its physical challenge seriously. John XXIII was the first Pope to travel by railroad, but that, after all, was only an aggiornamento to the developmental level of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Now a Pope had descended upon us by Alitalia, here one morning and back in Rome the next.

He could not, as prisoner of that gadget the jet, bring much of his usual ambience with him. The beard and the presence of Eugene Cardinal Tisserant was almost the only object Paul could carry to suggest a tradition embracing the desert fathers and the sixteenth century.

The Pope we see in Saint Peter's is set round with flamboyance; yet when the Holy See is vacant, strangers are occasionally shown the empty Papal apartments, and the shock is how bare they are, as pitiless to any man tempted to ease and comfort as some room in a railroad YMCA. We are used then to think of the Pope as presiding amid the splendid, and sleeping amid the sparse. To see him in mean surroundings is like blundering into his personal chamber; and so it seemed an invasion of his privacy to come upon him on any ground so devoid of the smallest concession to the senses as an airport runway. And, since no nation has spent more money on sparse and mean appointments than has the United States, the Pope's whole day with us was never safe from the occasional sense of looking through another man's keyhole. 

His welcome was part curiosity, part devotion, all courteous and all cheerful. The devotion was native more to our suburbs than to our city pavements; the Church's proudest laymen live not in the city but in the commuter towns around it; suddenly you recognized that Manhattan is no longer a Catholic island.

Pope Paul had asked to drive through Harlem to bless the worst-used of his separated children; he drove across a One-Hundred-and-Twenty-Fifth Street swept clean and integrated for the first time in memory, a Harlem recognizable because only there did the policemen go on being nasty by habit.

The New York Central still stops at 125th Street on its way in from Westchester and Connecticut, and the sisters on pilgrimage from these places had debarked there with their pupils to stand by the Papal procession. There hung over Harlem from the elevated track a banner carrying the strange device "Scarsdale Welcomes His Holiness." Down below white children thrust out their hands and cried their "evvivas," while behind them the black natives of the quarter, more Baptist than Muslim, looked silently and politely at the swift passage of black Lincoln and red mantelletta.

Outside Saint Patrick's, there was an intimate, wonderfully cheerful crush; inside, as a surprise and slight shock to the lower Protestant orthodoxies of the Westchester pilgrims, the congregation broke into applause at the sight of Pope Paul approaching the altar. Walking away afterwards, one came across hawkers morosely intoning "pitchers of the Pope fifty cents." They seemed to be doing very little business. But still there was the comfort that Pope Paul had, after all, brought a little of Rome with him and had for an hour or so transformed a church whose pride is normally overborne by the brutalities of Rockefeller Center across the street into the noisy bazaar of an Italian cathedral.

He had come not for us but for the United Nations, and what history he made belonged to that organization, which has, for the moment, an embarrassment of prestige and a share of history quite beyond its expectations of last summer.

Pope Paul had chosen, out of the ancient prejudice that it is the language of diplomacy, to address the Assembly in French, an especially happy choice because his speech was pacifist and the language, in its gravity and its simplicity, summoned every echo of the French anti-war films of the thirties:

"Non les uns contre les autres, jamais, plus jamais… Jamais plus la guerre, jamais plus la guerre."

He sounded marvelously innocent of the grounds for quarrel between great nations and, for that reason, the more marvelous for the occasion. Four years ago, the Russians would have darkly searched his text for the ghost of John Foster Dulles; and the Americans would have been wondering whether the Vatican is not a little soft on Communism. Now the United States and the Soviet Union sit together contemplating the barbarities of the Chinese. Pope Paul had fallen perfectly upon the mood of the Assembly and set its key; persons who came to scoff remained to say that he had made the best speech they had ever heard at the UN.

There followed that great Papal Mass for Peace at Yankee Stadium, under a beige canopy directly on the 50-yard line where every remaining Sunday in October the football Giants will gouge and butt and choke their enemies. The beer advertisements had been covered with blue bunting; there were yellow chrysanthemums in beds around the altar platform; still the appointments seemed meager.

Then the children came to the table. We were looking upon boy kings crowned and remembering the little Saint John who drowses asleep in the Bassano Last Supper. The Pope held up the host against a night lit by the flashes of cameras held by priests, and on the running track policemen alternated their Latin responses with objurgations to keep the entrance clear for the sacred Cadillacs, and the Mayor had lost his car, and we could feel ourselves in Rome after all.

One departed through the Yankee dugout past the profitless vendors and reflected that the circle had, against all the odds, been made. Pope Paul could not bring us that particular radiance which made Pope John's mere description of a rosary sound like an exultation produced by the surprise of a hummingbird lighting upon his wrist. Pope Paul seems a man of worries more than joys or sorrows; one observer said that he reminds you of the man you have to see in order to get to see the man you want to see.

But this must have been a voyage at least penitential enough to satisfy the most rigorous canons for pilgrimages. The gentlest and most reverent crowds any of us have ever seen in New York were themselves almost a contribution to loneliness; as Pope Paul rode down Madison Avenue to see the President through bluecoats shoulder to shoulder, the scene called back Senator Robert Kennedy's sad observation in his 1964 campaign that most of what any public figure remembers of the face of New York is of the backs of its policemen. Pope Paul's final duty call was to the World's Fair to see his Pieta, as lonely as himself in Jo Mielziner's uncomfortable blue stage lights. Finally, he came out on the Vatican pavilion's balcony to bless the crowd. "Goodbye," he cried, "Goodbye."