TO THE LIST of spiritual figures who have performed at Madison Square Garden—Zen master Phil Jackson, the Reverend Run of Run-DMC, Wizards guard God Shammgod—we may now add Pope Francis. When the world's most famous man visits the World's Most Famous Arena on Friday, the institutions will illuminate each other in a three-paneled dressing-room mirror of endlessly reflected glory.
This is an article from the Sept. 28, 2015 issue
Is it the Pope's celebratory motorcade through Manhattan that makes him resemble a sports star? The robust scalping market for tickets to see him? Or is it those rope-a-dope-pope bobbleheads in Philadelphia that feature the Holy Father wearing red boxing gloves, proving that the only two things still worthy of Roman numerals—now that Super Bowl 50 has dropped them—are popes and Rocky sequels?
Perhaps it's all the T-shirts that spell POPE in the Phillies' font of the 1970s, or the fact that popes and American sports champions both get specially commissioned rings and visit the White House, where we half expect Pope Francis to give President Obama a papal vestment with POTUS on the back.
More likely, it's all these things that cause us to see the Pope's Atlantic Division road swing through New York, Philadelphia and Washington in the idiom of sports. Sports are a metaphor for every facet of life—every presidential campaign is a horse race, every executive "moves the chains"—but religion was once the exception. Sure, sports have always looked like religion. Football, to take the most unapologetic example, has Hail Marys, an Immaculate Reception, Touchdown Jesus and the Voice of God, and many games end with a quarterback genuflecting as time expires.
But religion didn't always look like sports, even if the two share the same language of hope and redemption. When they used to say the Sporting News was the Bible of baseball, some countered that the Bible was the Sporting News of religion, and whether you value sports or religion more highly is probably evident in what you arrange your Sundays around. (Be honest: How many of you hear the word miracle and reflexively think on ice?)
It's appropriate, then, that the Pope is visiting Philadelphia, where former Phillies skipper and general manager Paul Owens was nicknamed the Pope for his resemblance to Pope Paul VI. Forty years later, the culture has shifted: Athletes and managers are no longer likened to popes, but popes are likened to athletes and managers.
"This new pope is like the Floyd Mayweather of popes," the comedian Chris Rock tweeted when Pope Francis was finally elected. It may have seemed an inapt comparison. The boxer is fixated on wealth, this Pope is fixated on poverty. The boxer has dozens of supercars, the Pope swapped his Benz for a Hyundai. One has a 20,000-square-foot house, the other eschewed the papal palace for a small apartment. And while they both have roughly the same number of Twitter followers, only one of these men wears red shoes, and it is no longer the Pope.
But Rock was in fact complimenting the pontiff, essentially calling him the best pound-for-pound pope of our time. He is certainly a pope of the people, as well as other creatures, to judge by the Phillie Phanatic, who has revealed himself to be a religious phanatic too, holding in a furry green appendage the other day one of the promotional Pope Francis rookie cards that the team handed out last week.
Argentina's other most famous son, Diego Maradona, scorer of the infamous Hand of God goal at the 1986 World Cup, said, "The hand of God has given us an Argentine pope," and soccer is the Pope's favorite sport. After his favorite team, the Buenos Aires club San Lorenzo, won the Argentine Primera Division in 2013, Francis received players at the Vatican and was given a jersey with FRANCISCO on the back. It makes sense that the most global of leaders emulates the most global of sports, for soccer and the pope are both invested in the biggest questions of all, including the practice of promotion and relegation. That is to say: Who is going up, and who will be sent down.
Is it the Pope's Manhattan motorcade that makes him seem like a sports star? Or is it the robust scalping market for tickets to see him?
What would you rather attend: a papal visit or a Super Bowl? Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin