The picture was black and white. I mean the television that I watched as a student on Oct. 4, 1965, when Blessed Pope Paul VI addressed the United Nations.
Everywhere excitement filled the air. The event saturated the media. Catholic schools had no classes that day. Instead, knowing that something momentous was occurring, students watched television.
Long-range cameras caught the papal plane, a DC-8 four-engine jetliner of Alitalia, Italy’s national airline, far in the distance as it approached New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. When the plane’s landing gear touched the runway, we cheered. After all, it was the first time that any pope had stepped on American soil while in office.
As the pope stepped from the plane, the president of the U.N. General Assembly, Italian Foreign Minister Amintore Fanfani, genuflected and kissed the pope’s ring. Only weeks earlier, the assembly had elected Fanfani. U.N. observers said that protocol was set aside, and Fanfani was chosen, precisely to complement Paul VI, who was an Italian. It was not Europe’s turn for the presidency.
We watched the drive into Manhattan. No movie star, victorious general or athlete ever had such a reception.
The great and the mighty peopled the gallery in the U.N. assembly hall. Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was there, her first public appearance since her husband’s funeral in 1963.
Next to the podium was the large throne-like chair that the U.N. strictly reserves for visiting heads of state.
We were thrilled, even as youth, at this outpouring of esteem and respect for our pope.
In glowing terms, President Fanfani introduced Paul VI, and then came the address, delivered in elegant French, commentators said.
Pope Paul VI was more reserved than his dazzling successor, Pope St. John Paul II, but his quiet demeanor added power to his words when he spoke about something important to him.
Such was the case when he said, imploringly, to the representatives of the earth’s sovereign powers, “No more war! War, never, never again!”
Brilliantly, logically, he insisted that peace reigns when justice reigns, and when want is absent. He pleaded for the prosperous and secure nations to help the struggling and oppressed.
The address over, it was off to meet President Lyndon B. Johnson. The president, who always had a soft place in his heart for Catholics, was not part of it all, strictly speaking. It was a United Nations, not a United States, affair. Fanfani was the official host, but Johnson nevertheless flew to New York with his wife and daughter, Luci, to pay his respects.
Why did the Johnsons bring Luci to meet the pope? It was not reported at the time, but later we learned that Luci wanted to come so that she could tell the pope herself that she had converted to Catholicism.
In an unparalleled gesture of regard, President Johnson walked the pope to his car when the meeting ended.
Then it was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then Yankee Stadium where the pope celebrated Mass. We altar servers were intrigued to notice the pope’s two altar “boys,” the bishop of Brooklyn and the coadjutor archbishop of New York!
What a day.
After remembering the joy of that day, I am so disappointed now to know that Paul VI’s pleas to the U.N. went unheeded. How wonderful it would be if he had been heard and followed.
Fifty years hence, will people wish that we had only listened when Pope Francis addressed the U.N. back in 2015? I would not be surprised.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.