Prairie Messenger Header

New York goes crazy in a papal sort of way

By Michael Swan
The Catholic Register

09/30/2015

It’s actually hard to gather a sense of how New Yorkers are responding to Pope Francis. Out on the street, it seems like there are no native New Yorkers. Everybody is either a tourist or part of a visiting TV crew, filing their own reports on how New Yorkers are greeting Pope Francis.

A real New Yorker, hidden behind the forest of selfie sticks with tourists attached, is as rare as a Northern Spotted Owl. And then they disappoint you by complaining about the traffic.

Not all of them are focused on their commutes and the upset likely when Pope Francis wades into a sea of humanity in Central Park at 5 p.m.. Some are thinking of how this pope relates to their city.

It is significant that Francis comes from Buenos Aires, Argentina, another big city in the Americas shared and divided between the rich and the poor, Capuchin Father Julian Jagudilla told me. It matters that he is the son of immigrants, just as so many New Yorkers are.

Jagudilla is a migrant from the Philippines who as a Franciscan friar has become director of a migrant centre that helps hundreds of Hispanic migrants per year with their impossible legal tangles. He advocates for the rights and dignity of migrants, who are so much a part of the fabric of New York City.

In the office of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, Nathalie Orcel answers phone call after phone call from people who expect her to tell them precisely when and where the pope will be and how they can get a good look at him.

“They’re driving me crazy,” said Orcel. “I can't wait for him to leave so we can go back to the normal crazy stuff.”
Orcel is joking. She’s a tough New Yorker, but that doesn’'t stop her from smiling as she answers the phone one more time.

“It’s been going on since June, when we didn’t even know about it,” she said.

The parish isn’t far from Penn Station, and Orcel compares the Church of St. Francis of Assisi to the big Manhattan train station. The people calling her aren’t necessarily parishioners or even Catholics. They just figure the downtown Franciscans must know. “People want information, they come to us,” said Orcel.

James Austria also works at the parish and he’s similarly amused by the fuss, but can’t hide his own excitement.

“It’s a big deal because he inspires people,” said Austria. “But he’s a little deal, because he’s so humble.”

There’s no minimizing the big headline events of Pope Francis’ sweep through the U.S. east coast, said immigration lawyer Tom Backen. But it’s the combination of his addresses to Congress and the United Nations with visits to school children in Harlem, homeless people in Washington and prisoners in Philadelphia, that nails down exactly why Francis has been so popular and so effective.

“That’s one of the things most startling about the guy,” Backen said. “He’s always reaching for another encounter.”

The way Francis worked behind the scenes to encourage pragmatic dialogue between Cuba and the United States is an example for all Americans, especially for the country’s polarized, shouting, strutting and posing political class, said Backen.

I met a couple on the Number 3 train who took an interest in my camera equipment. The gentleman had just bought a rather expensive camera and now had an interest in expensive lenses. I steered the conversation to the pope. He works for the MTA and he and his wife are not Catholic. So he said he wasn’t too interested, but his wife looked at him with that well-worn look of wives who are disappointed by something their husbands have said.

On Eighth Avenue, where a painting of Pope Francis against a bright yellow background covers a building and looms over the midtown neighbourhood, men on a smoke break were talking about the picture and the pope. A parade of those tourists with selfie sticks were taking their pictures with the pope mural behind them.

A professional photographer from Japan and I commiserated over how difficult it will be to get a decent picture of the live pope in Central Park’s shadowy evening light, to say nothing of the opaque arrangements the city, the archdiocese and the Secret Service have made for the press. But there was no question that a photograph of the pope was something both of us would fight through crowds and officious public relations staff to get.

It’s more than another assignment. There’s something in Francis we need to see, to capture and to know.