“New York was a bit exuberant,” said Pope Francis, when asked about his first visit to the City that Never Sleeps. For a city that prides itself on delivering lots of razzle-dazzle and sensory stimulation, this exuberant welcome was quite in keeping with its character.
Pope Francis’ visit to New York City filled the city with excitement and anticipation long before the Pontiff set foot on American soil. In the days leading up to September 24th, NYPD barriers began to line the avenues, in preparation for Papal motorcades. Pope Francis bobble-heads appear in the neighborhood bodegas. On my morning runs through Central Park, a large sign appeared announcing the park’s closure on Friday, September 25th, “due to the Papal Visit.” Tall chain-link fences appeared around the route of the papal procession through Central Park. The city was completely shut down near the UN; New Jersey Transit—the favored transportation of suburb commuters and drunk Rutgers undergrads—had “2015 Visit of Pope Francis; What You Need to Know” banners splashed at stations all along their routes. The buses were decorated that announced route changes for the papal visit and warned that some buses, streets, and whole sections of the city may be out of order.
Although water cooler talk was constantly speculating on how chaotic and nightmarish “Getting Around The City” would be on Friday September 25th, there was a hint of satisfaction and excitement in the complaints. It is sort of exciting to get your life re-routed for a day by someone as famous and as cool as Pope Francis, and the MTA is always one big fat inconvenience anyway, amiright?
As we waited in crowds of people to catch a glimpse of him outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, or to greet him in the Pope-mobile in Central Park, the crowd was filled with excited chatter. I wonder what he thinks of New York City? This is his first visit you know. I wonder if he’s experiencing culture shock. Did you know that he hasn’t watched TV for fifteen years!? Businessmen hung out of office windows, craning their necks, and men in suits stood on scaffolding like small children, just to catch a glimpse.
As we waited in line to greet Pope Francis on his drive through Central Park, my fellow pilgrims and I looked up to see a small rainbow dancing above the trees. Although there had not been any rain that day, the rainbow shone brilliantly in the sky. I could not help but think of God’s sign to Noah, and it seemed like an omen of hope. Not only in this inexplicable rainbow, but in his messages to the people, Pope Francis brought with him a reminder to hope. In his homily at Madison Square Garden, he said: “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.” And this, beyond any other duty of a successor of Peter, is the primary task of the Vicar of Christ on earth: to remind the world that Christ still walks among us, that God is still working in the world. And in this is our hope.
It is so easy to put our hope in what is not Christ. As citizens of the world, who must use the political reality we inherit to try to bring about goodness and the kingdom of God, it is so easy to put our hope in legal systems, in law-making, or in earthly powers. Although politics are an important means of social change, they are not our hope. Our hope, as Catholics, is in Christ. In Christ, who heals all wounds. In Christ, who brings wholeness to our brokenness. Our hope is in God who still walks among His people, and who shapes all things for the good.
Francis may look different than I would like. If I were pope, I would probably not talk about the issues Francis focuses on, and certainly not in the manner in which he speaks of them. This, and several other reasons, are why I am not pope. It is no accident that his entire visit, he sidestepped any issue that could cause him to become the spokes piece for the American right or the American left. The truth is bigger than American partisan politics. It is easy to lose sight of that fact. But the Truth is more expansive, wider, and deeper than American partisan politics. Francis may not speak about the issues that I tackle or causes that I champion. He doesn’t have to. He stands for Truth, for Hope, for Christ.
Francis also represents something new. Too much of our language in politics revolves around battles, taking sides, partisan politics and division. Francis is not just boldly opposing those lines; he’s showing the world that Catholicism means something different. It may be working in the world, but it is not of it. It is leaven in the dough.
A little over two and a half years ago, I stood in St. Peter’s Square on March 13, 2013. Along with a handful of my Notre Dame classmates, I stood under a cloud of umbrellas, waiting, praying, and keeping our eyes glued to a tiny chimney. Together, we waited anxiously in the evening rain, we watched as a plume of white smoke poured out of the smokestack, we heard the words: “Habemus Papam!” and, after what seemed like hours of hurried, hushed, and excited whispering among the pilgrims crowded within the arms of St. Peter’s, shouted along with the rest of the crowd “Francesco! Francesco!” Already, before he said a single word, that figure in white became a symbol of hope and healing, a figure of peace. Because, first and foremost, he was a symbol of Christ crucified, laying his life down for the Church.
God is living in our cities. The Church is living in our cities, and she wants to be like yeast in the dough. She wants to relate to everyone, to stand at everyone’s side, as she proclaims the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, and the Prince of Peace.
— Pope Francis, Madison Square Garden. Friday, September 26th, 2015