The 1959 Billy Graham Crusade, and its lesser-known sequel a decade later, had demonstrated that, for Melbourne, the MCG was not simply a sports stadium but a focal point in Victorian life.
Important as Dr. Graham's Crusades were in drawing international attention to the MCG, they were overshadowed by the 40th Eucharistic Congress, held in 1973.
Since 1881, the Catholic Church has regularly conducted such gatherings to strengthen individual ties with Christ and the Blessed Sacrament through meetings and liturgies.
In 1973, major spectacles at the Ground were still something of a novelty. MCC Committeeman Bernard Callinan was instrumental in assisting Congress organisers with planning. Since four ceremonies were at night, temporary lighting had to be installed.
Initially, the club was reluctant to have a huge podium covering the grass for such a long period. Finally, the grass was transported to another location where it could be watered and kept alive. The benefit of the decision was immediately obvious. Erected near the notorious Bay 13, the podium and its altar provided a prominent and impressive focal point for the entire Ground.
In the past, the Irish had dominated Australian Catholicism. The mass for migrants on February 20 showed that times had indeed changed.
The congregation of about 20,000 contained Chinese, Germans, Czechs, Mauritians, Maltese, Lithuanians and countless other nationalities who had made Australia their home. Many wore traditional dress and carried decorative banners, forming a colorful backdrop to the splendour provided by the robes of cardinals, archbishops and bishops around the floodlit altar.
The Age reported that "A Gregorian chant rang sweetly … through the great MCG stands so often filled with roaring."
Those stands confused one group. As the mass commenced, Mother Teresa of Calcutta and a dozen Indian nuns became "briefly lost in the huge concrete corridors". With help from gatekeeper Clifford Hewins, they "half walked, half ran" to seats "at the front of the new members stand".
On February 22, an ecumenical service drew a crowd that was below "some exuberant predictions" but, as The Age asked, "How often do you get 27,000 adults to turn up to a church service?"
Two days later, the Melbourne Cricket Ground was the hub of "the biggest movement of people by public transport ever in Australia".
In a masterpiece of organisation, 200 buses, 100 trams, 77 metropolitan trains and 26 country trains ferried 100,000 schoolchildren and their teachers from all over Victoria. A few had even come from Brisbane and Port Augusta.
All of the MCG events began with the arrival of the Papal Legate, Lawrence Cardinal Shehan, accompanied in an open burgundy Rolls-Royce by Cardinal Knox. Twenty-four mounted police escorted them around the arena.
The Saturday night provided the most colorful and unusual ceremony of the Congress. Maximos V, Patriarch of Antioch and leader of the Melkite Catholic Church, was principal celebrant at a mass in the Byzantine rite. Among the 28 co-celebrants was Josef Cardinal Slipyj, who had survived eighteen years in Siberian prison camps.
A night later, the Statio Orbis made the Melbourne Cricket Ground the centre of Catholicism, "a place of worship for the whole world, for Masses were being celebrated simultaneously in many parts of the world, with thoughts directed towards Melbourne."
For many Catholics, this was the one function that could not be missed. Ian Johnson estimated the crowd at 120,000.
Organiser Monsignor Brian Walsh puts the figure closer to 130,000, emphasising that, with the stands packed, at least 15000 were on the arena. In the Pavilion, blocks of nuns in white contrasted with the black garb of priests and brothers.
Nearly 140 prelates from every continent took part in the procession to the altar where the Papal Legate, Cardinal Shehan, celebrated Mass. In a recorded message, Pope Paul VI prayed that "the general theme of the Congress 'Love one another as I have loved you' could become very real in your hearts".
Usually, MCG crowds contain an element of division. Little unity characterises encounters between Collingwood and Carlton, for example. On this evening, the huge gathering was of one spirit, intent on worship. The responses to the liturgy came in one thunderous voice.
The singing, led by Vatican's Sistine Choir, members of nine Australian choirs and three bands, "had the satisfying depth of a big MCG crowd. It boomed across four stands."
More than 500 priests and special ministers, assisted by altar boys, went to every corner of the Ground for the largest distribution of communion that Melbourne had ever seen. Then, trumpets heralded the concluding rite of Light, Faith and Mission. In the closing moments of the Congress, "the crowd exploded with joy".
As the Rolls carrying Cardinals Shehan and Knox twice circled the oval, the final hymns were sung. Directing the operation by radio were Monsignor Walsh and Assistant Police Commissioner Mick Miller. During the second lap, one said to the other "We are never going to see this again. How about we send the car around a third time?"
The move caught the musical directors by surprise - they had run out of hymns. The Navy band broke into Waltzing Matilda, and "the crowd went crazy".
Australia's unofficial anthem, with its sad and joyful overtones, moved many to tears. Years later, on his travels around the world, Monsignor Walsh found that "the main thing that the overseas Cardinals remembered about the Congress was not religious. It was Waltzing Matilda."
The 1956 Olympic Closing Ceremony had set the benchmark for memorable, emotional moments at the MCG. Ian Johnson drew the inevitable comparison. The Statio Orbis was "the most impressive show I've seen here with that exception and I rate it equal with that."
One of the participants in the Eucharistic Congress was the Archbishop of Krakow. As one of the celebrants at the migrant mass at the MCG, Karol Cardinal Wojtyla attracted little attention, for he was little known outside Poland. During his time in Melbourne, he was almost ignored by the media. Even the Advocate, the Catholic paper, paid him scant attention.
However, his presence at this Congress, and at other similar events, would contribute to a much wider recognition of his abilities among the leadership of the Church. Soon, as John Paul II, he would become the first non-Italian Pope in 456 years.
Pope John Paul II
After his election in 1978, John Paul II had made pilgrimages to 72 countries by 1986, to meet and encourage the faithful and preach the Christian message.
The Age said that "It is first and foremost a message of peace, delivered with a prophet's fervour and conviction." Back to top
Late in 1986, the Pontiff's frenetic seven-day itinerary took him to all parts of Australia, at a time when the country was experiencing declining church attendances and religious vocations.
He landed in Melbourne late on November 27. Since mid-afternoon, people had been gathering at the Melbourne Cricket Ground for an evening ecumenical service. In the finish, about 60,000 were there. Apart from a Mass in Sydney, it "was by far the biggest turn-out at any event" for the visit so far.
Though the stands were well packed, plenty of empty spaces existed, particularly in the Pavilion. Scattered everywhere were representatives of almost every ethnic group living in Australia's most multicultural city. Local bands and performers entertained the waiting crowd.
That morning, the Sun had told how Suzanne Steele would "be singing for her life". Suffering from cancer, the glamourous soprano had only days to live. Bone marrow transfusions strengthened her for this performance. Her courageous singing of The Holy City was a very sad but inspiring moment.
The Pope's first stop was St.Paul's Cathedral. It was only the fourth time that John Paul II had entered a non-Catholic church - and only the third time in four centuries that a Pope had entered an Anglican cathedral.
He prayed that all Christians might be one and lit a metre-high Unity Candle. Its light was passed to a Torch of Peace that 1960 Olympic gold medallist Herb Elliott carried to the MCG, where he ignited a large cauldron "as a symbol of peace and hope".
His Holiness arrived just after eight, in the Mercedes "Popemobile" that Daimler-Benz had air-freighted to Australia. He was accompanied by Archbishop Sir Frank Little, whose broad smile left no doubt that he was enjoying this occasion more than anyone.
On the arena, the wicket area was roped off in preparation for Victoria's coming match against Mike Gatting's Englishmen. Around this sacrosanct square, thousands had been sitting behind barricades. Now, people were eagerly running for a close look at the Pope. The "Popemobile" passed through a banner proclaiming "Victoria welcomes John Paul II", proudly produced by members of the Collingwood cheer squad.
The ecumenical service took place on a vast podium in front of the Western Stand, soon to be renamed in honour of Bill Ponsford. The Pope was officially welcomed by Archbishop Little and the Reverend D'Arcy Wood, president of the Australian Council of Churches.
The heads of nineteen other Christian churches and communities were present, but the bright red cloak over his traditional white robes made the Pontiff the focus of attention.
Indeed, the great memory of the night is its colour, which came from "the national costumes worn by some of the congregation, thousands of flags and banners, the huge video screen overlooking the arena, and the rich green of those parts of the oval not occupied by people."
On the grass, one reporter "could sense a real air of joy and happiness in the crowd'. At the same time, "a genuine glow" was evident between the religious leaders on the podium. Pope John Paul had left Sydney early in the morning and spent the day in Hobart. He therefore looked a little tired, but the crowd "wanted as much contribution from him as possible." At every opportunity, they cheered.
Finally, when it was time for him to speak, "the people rose to their feet for the most enthusiastic greeting he has received at any event in Australia." As his strong voice echoed around the Ground, "they showed him reverence; they hung on every word … The MCG was silent." The gathering was "a renewed sign of hope for the world":
In Jesus Christ, unity, reconciliation and peace are made possible; in fact, not only are they possible, they are also our task … I encourage you to promote the prayer for peace here in Australia.
The Age wrote that, from anyone else, many of the Pontiff's sentiments could appear "trite or obvious. But when uttered by the Pilgrim Pope, as he is known, they have the capacity to inspire."
Pope John Paul ended the ecumenical service with a blessing: "May the Lord of peace himself give you peace, all the time and in every way." He stood at the edge of the podium, arms raised in farewell. Again, "people stood and cheered loudly" as he boarded the "Popemobile" for the short trip to St.Patrick's.
On both nights of the Melbourne visit, MCC member Dean Fred Chamberlain welcomed the Pope to the presbytery. As Dean of the Cathedral, he observed John Paul II at close quarters. He found that the Holy Father now shared an experience with the Ground's wartime residents: "He said how cold it had been in Hobart earlier in the day and that it hadn't been much warmer at the MCG."
More importantly, the Dean was struck by the Pope's serenity: "Nothing seemed to faze him … He was completely alive to everything that was happening around him, but at times he seemed completely removed from the events, such was his calmness."
For Australia's Polish community, November 28 was "the unforgettable night of a lifetime … their own night with the Holy Father". About 40,000 came to the Ground, many travelling from as far as Perth. The Pope's arrival was greeted by "a sea of waving red and white - Poland's national colours - as the crowd rose to their feet to cheer and sing. Thousands of men and women wept."
A huge banner of the Solidarity Free Trade Union Movement was draped over the entire upper deck of the Western Stand, the biggest political statement at the Ground since 1917's conscription rally. The choir and congregation sang Sto Lat, the joyful Polish tune wishing John Paul II 100 years of life. Then children and teenagers in traditional costumes from all parts of Poland performed Oberek, "a fast, whirling dance requiring skill and precision and a strong sense of rhythm". Other youngsters in national dress presented the Pope with flowers.
The Holy Father left no doubt about his joy "at being able to be among people from his own land". His homily recalled the history of the Poles in Australia, stressing that many had come "with the experiences of war, camps and frontlines, fire and iron". A reference to Solidarity gathered "a long round of applause".
Pope John Paul's main focus was on the young, reminding them of Poland's thousand-year history of Christian "culture, tradition and values" and of their double responsibility as Australians and Poles.
The disabled had a prominent place in front of the podium. Before departing, the Pope moved among them, a shepherd blessing and comforting his flock. He had stayed longer than the allotted hour, but most felt it was still far too short.