Friday, September 25th, was the Papal Mass and it was quite a day. I got into Manhattan slightly after noon. The information packet said to be there around two PM but I had no idea what the traffic would be like. They were saying that the city would pretty much be locked down. What I typically do when I go into the Manhattan for something or other is drive over to Brooklyn—I live across the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island—park the car near a subway station, and take the subway the rest of the way in. Manhattan traffic stinks and parking is impossible unless you want to pay at least $50 for the day. I did not run into any slowdowns either on the drive into Brooklyn or the subway ride to midtown Manhattan. So I was early.
On my walk from the train station to Madison Square Garden, I grabbed a sausage and peppers sandwich from a hot dog stand—I didn’t realize hot dog stands sold sausage and peppers now—and a Snapple and leaned against some building while I wolfed it down. It was pretty good, but I still felt hungry and came across a pizzeria on a side street and got a slice as well. The pizza men didn’t even look Italian--all ethnic groups can make pizza now. Mmm. I wolfed that down too. I have to say the food in Manhattan, even off the street and some side street, no-name pizzeria that’s not run by Italians is delicious.
When I got to the Garden (New Yorkers refer to Madison Square Garden as “The Garden”) there were tons of people around, including to my surprise some Protestant evangelizers handing out proselytizing pamphlets, which I found kind of tacky. I’m mean really, what are they thinking? If one is devout enough to go to a Papal Mass, do you think you’re going to convert because of some street handout?
I was still early at around 12:30-ish but I figured I would go see where I needed to enter and if I could enter I figured I might as well sit and read rather than just walk around. Cops told me I could not enter and that I needed to go to the back of the line, a line that was building south along the avenue. So I looked to my left and—oh—there was a line. At the end of the block I started to get on queue when the last person said the line continued on the next block. What? OK. I walked to the back of the next block, and then the next, and then the next. I went about eight blocks down before I finally reached the end. And within short order it kept building behind me. I don’t know how far behind me it went but ten city blocks in New York is roughly a half mile, and I think it went beyond that.
And then we waited. While waiting I bought a Papal flag off a street vendor, a chubby lady with a Spanish accent and spoke in broken English. My son would love it. Street vendors kept coming by with stuff. I bought from a tall Caribbean street vendor in dreadlocks a rosary made of black wooden beads with an image of St. Benedict on the cross. I bought it for my mother, who has asked for just such a rosary. I thought the image of St. Benedict was that of Padre Pio—my mother’s favorite saint—but I realized after I had bought it I was wrong.
I did read a little while standing but then I struck up a conversation with the family standing in front of me. It was a family of four—father, mother, daughter in her teens, and a son maybe around twelve. The son was in a motorized wheelchair and from what I could tell was a quadriplegic. His hair was blond and he had glasses and a studious face. I was struck by the way his family took care of him, fixed his hair that the breeze blew out of place, adjusted his seating position, took off a jacket when it got warm. His father even spoke sternly to him when the son insisted on something or other, just like any father might with any son. They were from out of the City, a good hour and a half north in a rural area. The father said they had to get a ride down since the special van he had that accommodates the son’s wheelchair was taller than standard vans, and, the other times he drove in, it couldn’t fit in the parking garages and he didn’t think he could find street parking. It must have cost them a pretty penny to get a specialized ride down and I assume a ride home. The mother said over the years her son had received individual blessings from their priests, their monsignor, their bishop, and now the Pope. “Who would have thought?” she said. “We thought the Bishop would have been the last, but then the Pope came into town.” Their church got them tickets just so their son could attend. The father did tell me they used to come down to New York City regularly to bring his son to a particular hospital for some sort of treatments.
My throat just swelled with emotion for the boy. Internally I kept praying to God to bless that poor kid. God, may he walk some day, and God, if we can’t have that miracle, may he have a full and happy life. Bless him Lord. I never did ask how the son became a quadriplegic. I assume he wasn’t born that way. When the line started to move up we kind of got split up in the walk up to the Garden. It became a bit of a disorganized scramble and people jumped ahead and others got angry, and I saw the father protecting his son and making sure his wheelchair wasn’t pushed around by the crowd. Even a set of nuns obliviously cut the line. Some people shrugged, some people were miffed. Later, inside, just before the Mass started I came across the father and daughter seated. I asked about the son and he said he was up at a balcony for wheelchairs with his mother.
You may ask why I’m giving all this preliminary detail but I’ll come to that later.
So finally I made it in and seated. Oh that felt good. That was about four PM, so from the time I got on queue to being seated was three and a half hours. So much for being early. I could have showed up late and gotten in just the same. My back was hurting, and so were my feet. Was I upset as some in the crowd were? No. I have always wanted to go on some sort of pilgrimage, and if I couldn’t take this burden then what kind of a lousy pilgrim would I be? I thought for sure I would have missed the great musical entertainment that was advertised. But no, it hadn’t started yet.
My seat was decent, a bit distant but facing the stage—which in this case was the altar. I was seated behind the ground level section of the Garden, in the first section of the sloping stands. It must have been fifty yards or so, but I had a direct view and a large screen directly in front of me.
Before the events started I did go outside the auditorium and look for souvenirs. Now I wanted something for myself. I collect little pins that you can put on a lapel or fishing hat, and unfortunately all the Papal pins were sold out. “All gone within an hour,” one vendor said. I smirked in disappointment. They did have baseball caps and several types of official rosaries, varying in price. I liked the rosaries. The cheapest one was $45 and it was beautiful and strong, so I took it. I’ll have to take a picture of it for another post.
The musical entertainment was exactly those advertised, and they each performed one song: James D Train Williams, Gloria Estefan, Kelli O’Hara, Norman Lewis, Jennifer Hudson, and Harry Connick Jr. They were all brilliant, but I have to say that Kelli O’Hara’s rendition of The Lord’s Prayer was incredible. She was in tears at the end, and so was I. I had never heard of her but what a voice and how she communicated with it. If she ever records The Lord’s Prayer, buy it; it will be worth it.
The Pope finally made a startling entrance twenty-some minutes early than the 6:30 start. He circled the ground level section in what looked like some sort of cart. Everyone was cheering and applauding. I could see him waving, and when I caught sight of his face he had that famous smile. Then he circled back out and came in behind the Entrance Procession. When he led us in the sign of the cross, the emotion hit me and I started to choke up. You could feel the electricity in the air.
The Mass then settled down into the liturgy. Pope Francis did the Preparatory Rites and the Collect in his broken English. The alternate readings were read in Spanish and then English, with the Gospel reading in English, Matthew 5:38-48, the passage on loving your enemies. The Holy Father than gave his homily, and he read the prepared text in Spanish, but there were English subtitles on the screen. I couldn’t catch the entire gist of his homily, but I caught images and phrases. “Light, Christ, smog, streets.” “Living in the city.” “The people walk and breathe.” “A light walking in the streets.” “Encounter Jesus.”
He was giving a homily on city life and how Christ is there amongst us in the city. I have lived in this city since three years old, which means I’ve lived here for fifty years. City life is all I really know. I certainly have had a love-hate relationship with this city. I couldn’t grasp the Holy Father’s exact message but I intuitively understood it. Life in the city is different. We walk by people. We fail to see the ones who are in need. We walk right by them or are scared of them.
And so this is why I gave such a long introduction to this post. I tried to capture the sights and moments of city life, the boy in the wheelchair, the family who cautiously cares for him, the rush of people jostling to get ahead in the queue, the people we bump into, the many faces we don’t even register as they stand right beside you, the frustration and anger you feel from people cutting ahead after you waited so long. Afterwards I went and found the entire text of the homily. You can read it here. Here is what I think is the key passage:
But big cities also conceal the faces of all those people who don’t appear to belong, or are second-class citizens. In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath “the rapid pace of change”, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no “right” to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.
Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city. A hope which frees us from empty “connections”, from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city. Because God is in the city.
What is it like, this light travelling through our streets? How do we encounter God, who lives with us amid the smog of our cities? How do we encounter Jesus, alive and at work in the daily life of our multicultural cities?
And then he implored us to go out and embrace the city and all its inhabitants.
Prince of Peace. Go out to others and share the good news that God, our Father, walks at our side. He frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness, and brings us to the school of encounter. He removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption, and he opens before us the path of peace. That peace which is born of accepting others, that peace which fills our hearts whenever we look upon those in need as our brothers and sisters.
God is living in our cities. The Church is living in our cities. God and the Church living in our cities want to be like yeast in the dough, to relate to everyone, to stand at everyone’s side, proclaiming the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light”. And we, as Christians, are witnesses to this.
The media is obsessed with the Holy Father’s political issues, and I wish the Pope wouldn’t thrust himself so directly into politics. But that’s him, for better or worse. What gets obscured by his political message is that such a fine pastoral message as this gets lost. The metaphors, the similes, the imagery, this was a brilliant homily, one of the best I’ve ever heard. I now recall that Pope Francis, when he was still Cardinal Bergoglio, was from Buenos Aries, the large city of Argentina. I remember a picture of him riding in anonymity on the subway. He knows the city. He’s from the city. His homily made me love New York City in a way I have never loved it before.
I wondered how they would do communion for some 20,000 people. If you look behind the altar you’ll see what must be over a hundred men in white robes. Those are all priests and deacons. The communion lines all proceeded out the auditorium and then circled back, so that it went remarkably smooth. But the height of the Mass must have been when just before Dismissal Cardinal Dolan gave a remarkable tribute to Papa Francesco. You can see the entire Mass on this video, but go to the 1:38:00 to see the tribute and the wonderful standing ovation. It was a great moment.
And so it was over. I again stopped at that pizzeria for another couple of slices before I got back on the subway. Parishioners were on the streets and I struck up a couple of conversations. We were all New Yorkers, and Christ was in the streets. We all thought the experience was extraordinary.
Pictures to follow on another post.