Servant of the Servants of God: Reflections on Pope Francis’s Visit to NYC

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It seems as though New York City is still in a daze after our visit from the Holy Father last week. He was here for just two short days, but his impact is still being felt. Many of my friends and I were able to attend one of the pope’s public events on Friday—the Central Park procession, with an attendance of eighty thousand, and the Mass in Madison Square Garden, with an attendance of twenty thousand. Many more watched the events at home and followed Pope Francis’s stay here in our city.

A three-block pilgrimage to the gates of Central Park

I was lucky enough to win a ticket to the Central Park procession, where I waited in a seemingly endless line of people for two and a half hours just to get through security and into the park. Jaime Normand, who also attended the procession, remarked that the walk from 66th Street to the entrance at 63rd Street—a two-hour journey of just three blocks—felt like the shortest pilgrimage in the world. But how amazing it was to be able to walk over from her apartment and enter into such a pilgrimage, to seek an encounter with holiness right in the midst of her everyday surroundings. The pope had come to meet New Yorkers right in our own city, and now we were being asked to make our own small journey, preparing our hearts to meet him with great expectation. Right from the start, we were forced to put aside our fast-paced New York City habits and slow to a crawl—to exit our comfort zones, be still, and wait.

Waiting for Pope Francis to arrive

It was incredible to see what an overwhelming welcome New Yorkers gave to the pope. Everyone wanted to see him, to be near him! Once inside the park, we waited a few more hours for his motorcade to arrive. Children spoke excitedly about Pope Francis and wondered what his popemobile would look like in person; seniors recounted past visits from Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II, how they felt the presence of the Holy Spirit while in the presence of the pope. I got the sense that everyone’s instincts to elbow each other out of the way to get a good view were simmering just under the surface—I won’t deny that many of us were tempted—but they were kept at bay by the knowledge that we were called to a greater sense of brotherhood with one another, that Pope Francis would expect more of us. So instead of griping about our neighbors and wishing for more personal space in this crowd of eighty thousand, we began making small talk with each other. And by the end of the afternoon we were laughing together, making restaurant recommendations in the city for dinner, and sharing photos of our experience.

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Pope Francis greets New Yorkers in Central Park (photos by Mary Sy)

As the time drew near for Pope Francis to arrive, whenever anyone would hear a noise from the distance, a rumble would go through the crowd and cameras would be at the ready as everyone wondered whether it was the pope on his way. After a seemingly interminable wait, suddenly he was there, in a flash of cheers and screams and waving hands, his familiar, kindly face smiling at us behind the glass of the popemobile. He was really there in our midst, for just a few seconds. The noise level of the crowd and the joy spilling out reached a fever pitch; choruses of Brooklyn accents yelled out their love for our Papa. As quickly as he came, he was gone, spirited away toward Madison Square Garden to say Mass. And even though we only saw him for a few seconds, even though we had waited hours and hours in the blazing sun without any chance to sit and rest our feet—the first comments I heard from the crowd after he had passed us were: “I’m so glad we came.” This crowd of weary New Yorkers was filled with hope upon the sight of this peaceful, humble man.

Twenty thousand visitors fill Madison Square Garden for Mass with Pope Francis (Photo by Grant A. Rice)

I watched the Madison Square Garden Mass on TV, but many of my friends were able to attend in person. Their experience of waiting in line for the Mass was similar to my own experience waiting for the procession—hours and hours standing out on the streets of Midtown amidst tens of thousands of people, with many making it inside barely in time for the Mass to begin. As Daphne Coelho-Adam remarked, the phrase featured on the Mass program really rang true for so many pilgrims: this was truly a “journey of faith through the heart of New York,” a long, roundabout path through the grime of the city before they were able to enter the doors. But from their descriptions of the experience of the Mass itself, every minute of waiting was worth it. Katharine Rice commented that she kept thinking of the members of the early Church, worshipping in secret and holding Mass in the privacy of their homes in the midst of persecution, and of Christians in our own day in the Middle East who are forced to do the same. And yet here she was, in one of the most high-profile venues and in one of the biggest cities in the world, attending a Mass with our Holy Father that was being televised throughout the country. What a blessing it was to be able to practice the faith so openly, and for the leader of our faith to be welcomed and celebrated.

Members of St. Malachy’s women’s group, (from left to right) Elizabeth Lapinel, Ann Breitbach, Katharine Rice, Jacquie Berger, Treasa Dalton, Michelle Ross, and Daphne Coelho-Adam, give joyful smiles after the Papal Mass at Madison Square Garden (photo by Grant A. Rice)

As Catholics, our participation in the sacrifice of the Mass is the greatest offering we can give to God, the greatest encounter we can experience in this life—and so it was natural for the conclusion and summit of Pope Francis’s visit to be the Mass, a celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for us. The pope, together with over one thousand concelebrating priests, welcomed the presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist to the middle of Madison Square Garden. Because Pope Francis models so well for us the light of Christ, watching him celebrate the Mass was particularly moving. As Christ offered Himself for us, Pope Francis offers his own life for the sake of serving others, and his example illustrates how we are each called to live out the Gospel. Mass attendee Ann Breitbach commented that the congregation spoke with remarkable zeal in each of the responses and prayers, that somehow it seemed that all twenty thousand people spoke in one voice, in perfect unison. We believe that the Body of Christ, which we enter into through the Mass, unites us all into one Body, though many parts and in many different walks of life. The reality of our interconnectedness was especially visible on that night, as so many gathered to be in the presence of our pope, head of the Church and head of the Body of Christ on Earth.

Pope Francis concluded the Mass by asking the congregation to pray for him (photo by Ann Breitbach)

At the conclusion of the Mass, Pope Francis, as he so often does, asked the congregation to pray for him. His genuine childlike joy and humility were visibly apparent as he received a standing ovation with a bashful smile. This smile, a sign of his down-to-earth nature, is part of what makes him so relatable and accessible to Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Clearly this is a man who knows his own dependence on God, his need for the prayers of others, and his own smallness in God’s presence.

One of the hallmarks of Pope Francis’s truly humble demeanor is that during his visit, he felt more comfortable in poorer areas of the city, visiting with ordinary, working-class people and those in need, than he did in more affluent areas among dignitaries and celebrities. Elizabeth Lapinel said that after attending the Papal Mass—a deeply emotional experience—and following the coverage of Pope Francis’s visit in the United States, she feels called to be more active in service to others. The pope’s example of service to those most in need—in particular, his visit to a correctional facility in Philadelphia—really made her reflect upon what she can do to help the marginalized in our community, to do something about tough social issues like prison reform and poverty instead of just standing by. She hopes to be able to “take off the blinders” and see the city as Pope Francis does: “We know this is going on in our city and we want to help, but we need to be able to find ways to actually help.”

Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, where Pope Francis visited during his stay in New York

I was able to speak with the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal at Our Lady Queen of Angels Convent the day after Pope Francis visited with the students at the grade school there. The biggest takeaway from my conversations with them, besides their overwhelming joy (One sister said, “We are still walking on air after yesterday!”), was the intentionality with which Pope Francis greeted each individual he met. Even though he was on a rushed schedule, they said, you would never know it from the way he looked at each child and listened to what they had to tell him, as though he had all the time in the world for them. He made each of them feel valuable and loved. The sisters were so thrilled that all of their students were able to touch the pope’s hand and speak with him, and they said the kids just couldn’t stop talking about it. It was an experience they will always remember, how the Vicar of Christ bent down and listened to their stories, how he took selfies with them and gratefully accepted their notes and drawings. And you can bet they will remember the homework he gave them—to pray for him.

Many of the Franciscan sisters, reflecting on their experience attending the Thursday evening Vespers service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, mentioned that they were profoundly moved by Pope Francis’s words addressed to the women religious of the city. They described it as a moment of tangible grace and felt he was speaking to them each individually. Sr. Ann Kateri Hamm, CFR, described how she felt anxious and stressed coming into the Vespers service, knowing that the next day she would be responsible for coordinating her students’ visit with the pope; she worried that things might not go smoothly. But as she listened to Pope Francis’s words, she felt a weight lift off her shoulders and a peacefulness fall over her. He reminded her to choose gratitude over worry, to remember the graces and blessings that she had been given throughout her life, to embrace “a grateful heart [that] is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work.” Her perspective shifted, and she returned to her convent with the joy that springs from a grateful heart, ready to lead her students to meet the Holy Father with the same overflowing joy.

Bulletin board outside Our Lady Queen of Angels School, East Harlem

The renewed joy and vigor after hearing the pope’s encouragement was so apparent in these sisters, and it was apparent, too, in the Harlem residents who visited their soup kitchen Saturday morning. As I helped serve them meals, they talked to me and asked whether I’d gotten a chance to see Pope Francis. Many of them had seen him while he was here, and they were eager to share their own stories. There was a different air in the soup kitchen that day; it seemed that everyone was in a better mood than usual. Even when we ran out of cake (usually a tense moment in the refectory!), I heard no complaints but rather gratitude for being served, and I was touched by the understanding and love of our guests. All of our hearts had been lifted by being in the presence of someone so good and pure and loving: the servant of the servants of God. The love of Pope Francis, the knowledge that he loves each of us individually and with tender care, is but a reflection of the incomparable love of God, and it points us toward that greater love, the love of the One who created us.

So what will Pope Francis’s visit mean for our city moving forward? How will we remember, process, and live out the lessons taught by Pope Francis in the days to come? I pray that the Francis Effect is only just beginning here—in New York and in the greater United States. But we must nurture it; we each must reflect, as Pope Francis exhorts us to, on the gifts we’ve been given in order that we might live each day in gratitude and not in bitterness, that we might devote ourselves to hard work for love of others. We must nurture the love of God in our own hearts. For many of us, the presence of Pope Francis has caused others to ask us questions about God and the Church, or perhaps notice for the first time that we are Catholic. Generally the reception of Pope Francis by non-Catholics has been warm and welcoming—in fact, I even passed a Protestant church on the Upper West Side advertising a book club discussion of Laudato si’! The buzz around Pope Francis’s visit has been strong, but it will eventually fade, and it is up to us to live out his example in our daily lives now that he’s gone. The most noticeable effect his visit will have on our city is if others can see that we were visibly changed by his presence, that he has affected our own lives and our own attitudes in a real, tangible way.

Gathered in the upper room of a rectory to watch the Madison Square Garden Mass

So let this experience affect you. Maybe you’ve only clicked on a few articles about it or watched some of the visit on TV; maybe you were far away from New York (and Philadelphia and DC) and feel disconnected from all the papal events. Maybe he visited your city and you feel a sense of disappointment that you didn’t get to see him in person. Maybe you actually attended one of the papal events, but you feel so burnt out and exhausted after all the excitement that you’re now experiencing a post-pope letdown; perhaps your emotions are numb and you haven’t really processed the amazing gift of your experience. But it’s not too late to receive the gifts that Pope Francis has given us and to hear his message, meant for you individually. Watch the footage of his visit and read the transcripts of his speeches. Realize that he has reached out to the American people in a special way, with the care and concern of a father. He is the father that Christ has given to the Church on Earth; like a shepherd he leads us, and he follows in the footsteps of Christ and in the tradition of Peter. He is a humble, very human man, in need of our prayers, given to us as our leader. He has shown care for the least among us: for the imprisoned, for the unborn, for the poor, for the immigrant, for the persecuted, for the abused, for the bereaved. Pope Francis radiates mercy. Allow his example to draw you further into the Church, into the mysteries of Christ, and into a deeper communion with your brothers and sisters. He tells us: “Do not let your enthusiasm for Jesus, his Church, our families, and the broader family of society run dry.” Let us listen and respond to his call through our daily lives and remember him in our prayers. Let Pope Francis spark a renewal in your own heart to love and serve God in every moment. The fruits of his visit are only just unfolding: in our communities, in our families, and in our own hearts; in New York, in the United States, and beyond.

Erin Cain

Erin Cain

Erin Cain is a writer and editor living in New York City, drinking lots of Earl Grey tea, and attempting to grow in virtue and love. She writes at Work in Progress.

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One Response

  1. Erin, this is such a great reflection! I find it particularly awesome that there is a Protestant church hosting a book study on “Laudato Si.” How cool is that? I also like how you mentioned the soup kitchen in Harlem, and how Pope Francis had really touched the lives of those individuals there. Thanks for sharing this with all of us!

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