I’ve been an apathetic observer of Catholicism, at best, for the past number of years. My Mom has often quipped she’s surprised I don’t burst into flames when I tell her I was in a Church, such is the lack of interest I’ve shown in the religion I was brought up as a member of, especially from my teens onwards.
And yet, as the visit of Pope Francis to New York grew ever closer, my interest was sparked. So many people speak of how this Pope is “different,” how he’s more understanding, warmer, and how he is the person to bring the Church into the future. I wanted to hear more, and so I ventured to Central Park (ticketless, unfortunately) to ask people why the leader of the Catholic Church is still able to bring New York to a standstill, despite the flagging following the Church has suffered in the past few years.
It didn’t take long for me to come across some of those with one of the golden 80,000 tickets that would admit them into Central Park for Pope Francis’ drive-thru at 5pm Friday on his way to say Mass in Madison Square Garden, the last point of call in his Big Apple trip.
Arriving in New York on Thursday evening, Pope Francis began his flying visit with prayers in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. There was an early start for the 78-year old Friday morning as he addressed the UN General Assembly at 8.30 am before a multi-religious the 9/11 Memorial and visiting Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem.
Driving through Central Park at 5pm, he made his way to Madison Square Garden to say Mass before one again leaving the city this morning.
As I took the train from Brooklyn into the city, four women pushing baby carriages and decked out in bright red “Pope in NYC” t-shirts rushed down the stairs, being helped by everyday good Samaritans in getting the prams down the stairs and holding the doors open so they could clamber inside.
Some 93,000 had applied for tickets in total and many were outraged as the otherwise free tickets began to appear online with hefty price tags, wanting to take advantage of those desperate to be in the park for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.
As I watched the women rushing down the stairs and those eager to help them get there, I began to question what had happened to make me disregard my religion as I do. Why hadn’t I been eager to get into the park like so many others?
I thought about all of the different nationalities that would be joining the lines, coming to the conclusion that my own nationality could be the cause. Being Irish, I’ve come to treat the Catholic Church with a certain bias. I grew up listening to scandal after scandal: the mother and baby homes, forced and illegal adoptions, abuse, neglect, and general behavior from the Catholic Church in Ireland that is far from Christian.
I remember making a poor joke about a priest once among American friends, a joke that in Ireland would have received a good laugh and possibly unleash a tirade of further jokes at the Church’s expense. Instead, I was given a strange look and ended up having to explain what I meant. They were horrified to hear that such things had happened in Ireland.
Drawing closer to Central Park, I made the decision to attempt to put aside this bias for a day. Those are not crimes that Pope Francis committed, and in order to understand what he means to people, I couldn’t go in all guns blazing when talking to people.
I joined the crowds on the park’s west side around 10am, already packed with excited hordes of people making their way to their assigned entrance and settling in for a long day of queues and security checks.
Although crowds were told they would start letting people in at 11am, one of the many cops walking the streets told me that the line began to form at 5.30 am with those eager to get as close to the Popemobile as possible.
I heard a passer-by decline water from her mother despite the very hot sunny day. “We’re going to be in line for hours without a restroom,” she argued.
Almost everybody was in a hurry. Seeing the amount of people already there before them, people were rushing by unwilling to stop and have a chat in their earnest to join the wait. Joggers weaved around them as children took their mid-morning break on the steps of their school, their local area taken over by flocks of people waving Vatican flags and wearing t-shirts bearing Pope Francis’ likeness.
Many waiting had their own country’s flag with them but I was unable to spot any tricolors among those already waiting or the groups of friends waving to each other from afar in the crowds.
I managed to attract the attention of a passer-by long enough to get a whole sentence out. “I have to stop and talk to an Irish girl because I’m Irish too,” she laughed.
Kathleen Doherty from Staten Island is shocked at her own reaction when I ask her how she feels to be present for Pope Francis’ visit.
“I didn’t think I would feel this way but I do,” she says with a shaking voice and tears about to flow.
“We love him. He’s warm, he’s real, he’s very pastoral - what this church needs in America - and hopefully he’ll do some good.
“Having a sister who’s a nun, he appreciates them, and that’s very important because they’re the most under appreciated in the Church.”
Pope Francis’ attitude towards women, whom he mentioned during his prayers in St. Pat’s on Thursday evening, is something others have noticed, too. Ken Sparks, another casual observer watching the crowds piling in, commented on how they were mostly women in line. It sums up a lot about this pope, he believed.
“I live one building down,” he said, pointing down 66th street. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“The park I consider my front yard and my back yard so I walk over here in the mornings and in the evenings and there’s always a nice crowd of people. I usually come earlier in the day and later in the day after almost everybody has left, especially the tourists, so I’ve never seen people lined up to go into the park before this … The entire upper west side is standing on the street.
“I think it’s amazing. How often, first of all, do you get to see a pope? And this guy is so special to begin with, everybody just finds him fascinating whether you’re Catholic or not.”
The people I spoke to were a healthy mix of Catholics and non-Catholics. A woman named Ellen stopped just long enough to tell me she wasn’t Catholic but she believed in what Pope Francis stood for.
“I align to a lot of his thinking. I think it’s more of an all-religion perspective. I’m not sure that people still align to the doctrine,” she said.
Others were Catholic but, like me, would not consider themselves as practising.
“I’ve fallen a bit with the other Popes but this Pope brought us back I guess,” Patriss from the Upper West Side told me.
“He is already bringing people together. He brought one set who had fallen away back again or at least, they have a better image of the church.”
I stopped to talk to a young boy named Enzo who was decked out in a special t-shirt and carrying a big flag ready to celebrate with his mother. His mother was from Argentina, he told me, which brought an enthusiastic cry of “Argentina!” from her, both clearly proud to come from the home of this much-loved Pope.
“I’m nervous,” he told me. “I don’t know why.”
The love for Pope Francis was infectious. If you’d lived on a desert island all your life and knew nothing else of the Catholic Church, everything his enthusiastic fans say would make you a follower.
Stephanie and Barbara from Westchester told me: “He deserves it. He’s different. He’s so warm, he’s like an everyday kind of person. He’s somebody you can talk to and he seems to understand.
“You can feel his heart.”
Andres Fonseca and Nora Bingham had traveled to New York from Chicago on Thursday to be in the city when the Pope arrived. Having witnessed the visit of Pope Benedict several years ago, Andres wanted to ensure his girlfriend witnessed Pope-mania this time around.
Self-confessed cultural Catholic Nora, whose family originally came from Roscommon, had high hopes for what Pope Francis can do.
“I love Pope Francis,” she gushed.
“I’m really excited for what he’s doing in terms of being a world leader. I think he’s really impressive and really inspiring on a global level, removed from him being a religious figure.
“I think people are really inspired to be better and to work harder to make the world a better place to live in in terms of climate change and in terms of equal rights for people. So I just had to see him while he’s in America.”
“It’s gonna be crazy in a couple of hours, especially after three thirty,” Andres continued.
“You have to be through the security point then and the people who are going to be there. Things are going to get nuts. There’s going to be drums, there’s going to be megaphones. There’ll be singing, there’ll be praying, it will be crazy.
“In four hours, it’s going to be a whole other story.”
Unfortunately, I was unable to wait around that long and I left the excited crowds wishing I could stay and enjoy their excitement, even if I couldn’t go into the park myself.
As I walked further away towards Central Park’s East Side, the number of Vatican flags and Pope Francis emblazened t-shirts gradually faded away as more tourists appeared. It could have been any other Friday apart from the lack of horse-drawn carriages that had been taken off service for the day.
On reaching Fifth Avenue, I noticed another large crowd gathered and went to investigate. Having walked westwards feeling a small sliver of hope for the future and having met so many people with a genuine love in their hearts for their fellow man, here, just a few blocks away, was another massive crowd lined up, some dragging their children along with them, to get their hands on an iPhone 6S.
I don’t think Pope Francis would have approved.
Back at Central Park, the crowds endured their long wait, although due to the heat of the day it was reported that several people fainted in the more packed sections of the crowd and they required medical attention.
Even after 4 o’clock thousands had still to enter the park but it appears that all those waiting miraculously made it inside in time before he began his 20 minute motorcade from 72nd Street to 59th street while those without tickets waited outside the park still hoping to catch a glimpse.
Thousands cheered as Pope Francis drove by heavily guarded by police vehicles and uniformed officers in his new Popemobile, a Jeep Wrangler partly outfitted with bulletproof glass.
Similar lines were seen outside Madison Square Garden where the Pope said Mass to 20,000 people at 6pm. Just 90 minutes beforehand, thousands still waited outside to gain access to the venue, it was reported, and frustration began to rise.
Transformed into a place of religious worship, millions worldwide watched the mass in Madison Square Garden where the Pope spoke on life in big cities such as New York.
"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," he said in his homily.
"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."
Portions of the mass were said in English, Latin and Spanish and USA Today report that “Italian, French, Mandarin and Gaelic” were also used in the prayers of petition.
Pope Francis spent the final evening of his New York trip at the diplomatic residence of the papal nuncio, a five-story townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side, before flying off again to Philadelphia this morning and the city is already getting back to normality, or as normal as New York ever gets.
To think that a city that sometimes appears to me to be so wrapped up in itself could be taken over by a religious leader as it was the past two days was surprising in a way but not when you think about even the small changes Pope Francis has made to change the image of the Church during his Papacy. Not only has he taken a more lenient stance on many issues within the Catholic doctrine but enduring endless selfies and setting up a Twiitter account has given the world access to a Pope who appears more human than those that have come before him.
It may not take long for the majority of New York to forget Pope Francis' visit and the disruption it may have caused to their day but for some, at least, it offered a hope that they will never forget.