Forty-four years ago today, Pope Paul VI became the first pope to visit America. He met with President Lyndon Johnson, addressed the United Nations, and spoke at Yankee Stadium. It was a fine, brisk autumn day and the Pope seemed to have shared the exuberance of the crowds and dignitaries who greeted him on this brief yet historical visit; in fact, it lasted exactly (and only) fourteen hours.

After landing at John F. Kennedy International Airport, the Pontiff’s motorcade proceeded through Queens on its way to Manhattan. Tens of thousands of spectators (I, a Catholic school kid, among them) lined Queens Boulevard to welcome him.

President Johnson wanted to meet with him; however, the Pope was not officially recognized by the USA as an official chief of state. The ever-resourceful Johnson arranged to fly to New York to dine with his friend Arthur Goldberg, the U.S  ambassador to the United Nations, the day before. Pope Paul paid an impromptu call on Johnson at his Waldorf-Astoria suite.

That evening, the Paul VI celebrated the first Papal Mass in the United States at Yankee Stadium, which was adorned in gold- and white- silk bunting (the papal colors). Blue cloths were draped over the outfield billboards and thousands of flowers surrounded a makeshift altar. Over 90,000 people were in attendance while millions more watched on television.

The crowd began filling up the ballpark five hours before the Mass began on a chilly night. Outside, hawkers filled the sidewalks selling records of the Pope, pennants, statues, crucifixes, rosaries, buttons and key chains.

In accented English, the Pope said of his visit: “This is the day which we have desired for centuries. The day which, for the first time, sees the Pope setting foot on this young and glorious continent.” NY Post

Video: Pope Paul’s motorcade passes through Queens