March 17, 2022

1965. Pope Paul VI Leads the Call for Peace

Pope Paul VI Visits New York
Source: "Pope Paul VI celebrated the first pontifical Mass on U.S. soil at the Yankee Stadium on October 4, 1965."
October 4, 1965


I'm told that, back in the button-shoe days of our great grandfathers, the famed man-to-man talk that went with a young man's first pair of long trousers included a statement that went like this: "My boy, there are two things that a gentleman never discusses in public: one, his women; two, his religion."

It was an unwritten rule that never really stuck to any generation, particularly concerning religious belief where every man is his own expert on what every other man's faith really ought to be. Since the beginning of time, countless nations and millions of men have gone to war over religion—a melancholy condition that still exists—as witness the smouldering conflict between Israel and the Arab nations. And most recently, the bloody crisis over Kashmir, rooted in the ancient hatreds between Hindus and Moslems.

Thus there was a realistic basis for the unwritten gentleman's taboo on religious discussion, although it did little to engender understanding of the other fellow's point of view. And herein lies one of the salient points of the historic New York visit of Pope Paul VI. It has most of the US and the world not only talking about religion, but closely examining Roman Catholicism as a force for peace in the world. The Papal plea for world amity was an exercise in universal faith, as well as a warning of the nuclear mortality of modern man.

Pope Paul's appearance brought credit to his church and needed prestige to the United Nations. His welcome by the people of the United States added dignity to the nation. A generation ago—or perhaps even less—such an American reception for a Pope of Rome might have been impossible. After Herbert Hoover's Republican landslide overwhelmed Democratic presidential candidate Alfred E. Smith in 1928, the standard interpretation of that election was that Protestant America would never tolerate a Catholic in the White House. The standard political joke only 28 years ago was that, after the election, Al Smith sent a one-word telegram to the Vatican which said: "Unpack."

By the same token, a generation ago it would have been unthinkable for Pope Pius XI to expose himself to a world still wracked by the starvation and misery resulting from World War I. It was a secluded policy of the Church of Rome of the 1920s that the duty of the priests was to attend to the souls of Catholics, not their bodies. At the same time, in the United States, the Ku Klux Klan's secret membership grew to more than a million men, largely by expanding its Southern anti-Negro propaganda to attack Catholics and Jews of the North.

Many Catholic historians say that the failure of the Roman Curia to emerge from its Vatican shell after the first World War and face world realities was one of the causes for the rise of Benito Mussolini's fascism which, in turn, provided the reasons for the growth of Italy's Communists today into the largest Marxist organization in the Western World outside of the USSR.

As a non-Catholic correspondent in Rome for some three years I covered Vatican City during the closing years of the reign of Eugenio Pacelli, Pius XII. At that time, Giovanni Montini was the Archbishop of Milan in the center of Italy's so-called "red belt" in the industrial north. After more than twenty years secluded in the service of the Vatican's foreign affairs office, the Archbishop found he had lost touch with the people. Anxious to establish himself as "the workers' Bishop," Montini was shocked when he heard himself booed in the factories. But he worked at his job—organized his priests into brigades to give emergency aid to the poor. And by the time I left Italy a half dozen years or so ago, Archbishop Montini was the most respected Catholic leader in the "red belt," on the testimony of even the most anti-clerical unionists.

Thus the president Pope Paul was briefly part of the theological revolution in the Church—one that is still going on. Briefly stated, follow the dictum of the respected Pope John XXIII, who urged his Cardinals to open the windows of Catholicism and let the Roman Church grow and change with the modern world through discussion and dissent.

While this policy debate raged quietly behind the walls of the Vatican at the end of the 1950s, Senator John Kennedy was making up his mind to run for the presidency; gambling that the world, the United States, and his own Catholic church had changed since the prohibition days of Al Smith and the Klan madness. President Kennedy won his political gamble, only to lose another in Dallas. But his election paved the way for today's New York pilgrimage by Pope Paul.

What will come of it? As the late Josef Stalin once pointed out, the Vatican State has no armored divisions, but there are 300 million Catholics around the world who attend his words of peace. And at the UN today there also were Moslems, Shintos, Buddhists, Hebrews, Protestants, Hindus, and other religions, plus a number of pagan sects including atheistic believers in that materialistic faith called Communism.

Perhaps, by international radio and TV, the Pope for a few hours today stirred perhaps a billion men's hearts and spirits toward the cause of peace. Who knows what might come of it?

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night in Washington.