While wandering around the Roman Colosseum many years ago as a college student, I happened across an unexpected sight among the tourists and the cats: a plaque bearing the name of Pope Benedict XIV. My Latin wasn’t the best, but I was eventually able to muddle through a thicket of abbreviations and ablative absolutes to determine that Benedict had dedicated the Colosseum in the middle of the 18th century to the early Christian martyrs. A monument most of us would associate with the glory days of the Roman Empire (and some of its worst excesses) was also officially recognized by Christians as a hallowed shrine.
Though historians have found no conclusive evidence that any Christians actually faced martyrdom in the Colosseum itself as part of the cruel amusements of ancient Rome, Benedict’s dedication was certainly part of a long Catholic tradition of sanctifying public and pagan structures for the edification and service of the faithful. I found an even more striking example of the phenomenon a few days later in Assisi, where I walked into an ancient Roman temple to Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, that had been rededicated to Our Lady and was still in use as a Catholic church: Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
When another Pope Benedict steps onto American shores in mid-April, thousands of the American Catholic faithful will also pour into ostensibly secular structures that they will then use for religious purposes. Benedict XVI’s visit will include huge outdoor Masses at Nationals Park, the new stadium of the Washington Nationals baseball team in Washington, D.C., and at Yankee Stadium in New York City a few days later.
Ever since Paul VI said Mass in Yankee Stadium in 1965, papal visits to the United States have featured these huge outdoor celebrations. One such Mass during a visit by John Paul II in 1987 was held at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz., presenting event organizers with a terrible conundrum: should images of Sparky, the smirking, pitchfork-wielding red devil of a mascot whose visage could be found everywhere in the stadium, be covered up out of respect for the pope? They decided in the affirmative, leading one to think that for at least a day the structure became Giovanni Paolo sopra Scintilla.
Washington’s Nationals Park is barely out of the wrapping paper, it’s so new—the first baseball game played there will be on March 30, 2008—and the papal Mass will be one of the first memorable events held in the new stadium (unless there is anyone misguided enough to think the current Nationals lineup will ever be worth remembering). Like the Roman Colosseum 19 centuries ago, Nationals Park rises out of the dense urban neighborhoods of a capital city, and was built at enormous expense. It will hold fewer spectators (41,000 total capacity) than the Colosseum, though for the papal Mass additional seating will be put up on the playing field.
Yankee Stadium shares similar environs but has a far more venerable pedigree: it opened in 1923 and has been hosting baseball games (as well as football games, rock concerts and all the other entertainments of American culture) ever since. It has also hosted popes before, including Paul VI in 1965 and John Paul II in 1979. This year, however, is the final year for the House That Ruth Built. Attendees at the papal Mass on April 20 will see its mammoth successor rising literally across the street. The new Yankee Stadium is scheduled to open its doors in April 2009. It too is a project of enormous expense and will make the current stadium obsolete, despite its status as a temple to baseball history. Pope Benedict XVI’s visit will be followed less than a year later by a visit from the wrecking ball. Romans may have tried to preserve their monuments over the centuries as a reminder of an empire’s past glory, but here in the Empire State, property values trump historical ones.
Historical trivia will mean little, of course, to those who scored precious tickets to either the Washington or New York celebrations. Both Masses will demonstrate the power of the sacred to transform the mundane and the ability of faith to imbue even the most secular arena with holy meaning. At a newly born stadium in our nation’s capital and a dying one in the world’s capital, we welcome a visitor from the Eternal City.