By PAUL VOSS, Special to the Bulletin | Published April 24, 2008
As a professor of English literature, I am trained to look for ambiguity, paradox, hyperbole, litotes, and other rhetorical tropes—especially in the written word. Irony, defined as the discrepancy between the appearance and the reality, is perhaps my favorite literary device. Its use in literature continues to give me pleasure. Our trip to New York City to hear Mass at Yankee Stadium with Benedict XVI was memorable for many reasons—and reasons both understandable and predictable. But the most compelling aspect of the weekend for me was two moments of delicious irony.
First, New Yorkers have a reputation (whether honestly earned or not) of being cynical and even hard to impress. New York, in this narrative, is the center of the universe, replete with world leaders, banking titans, movie stars and athletes. It’s where the rich and famous go to mix in. Into this world of the sophisticated metropolitans enters a slightly built, academic and shy 81-year-old German pope and, well, New York pays attention and pays attention on a massive scale. So the appearance (nothing can impress the cosmopolitans) does not square with the reality (thousands and thousands of folks straining for even a glimpse of the pope). … It seems the worldly, secular citizens really do seek the significant and transcendent. And they sought this significance in the figure of the pope.
The second bit of irony was even more palpable. While sitting in Yankee Stadium—the house that Ruth built—I was amazed to see that nearly every indication of the Yankee pride had been effaced from this most iconic of all sports stadiums. Each marker that would indicate past greatness or personal glory was covered or replaced with other signification. Virtually no indication of the secular remained. A sold-out crowd of 57,000 participated in Mass. At the moment of the consecration, the entire stadium was engulfed with a reverent silence. It’s amazing how little noise 57,000 people can make. Here we gathered (in a placed specifically designed for loud cheering and acts of the profane) in utter reverence and prayers. Again, I could not help but see the irony: so many gathered to witness the actions of a single man who commanded the greatest stage in the public spotlight. He never spoke much above a whisper; he performed no acts of marvelous athleticism. His bookishness hardly suggests physical prowess of any kind. But on that day, men and women of all ages—of every shape, size, color and language—left the stadium with the joy a little child reflects when the Yankees beat the Red Sox.
Thus, we have the irony that on this day (in a world that seems to care less and less for God) we have a national event (covered by a media with barely hidden contempt for religion) and a person (without the usual star qualities of beauty or athleticism) who took the “city that never sleeps” by storm and showed us all the power of his gifts, his love, his spirit, his strength and his courage. It was a wonderfully ironic moment.
Paul J. Voss, educator and author, holds a doctorate in English literature and is an associate professor and honors faculty affiliate at Georgia State University. He is also the Provost of Holy Spirit College in Atlanta. He and his wife, Mary, went to New York with three of their five children to see Pope Benedict XVI.