New York, New York!

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By Chris Sparks (Sep 25, 2015)
During the papal visit, we'll be sharing commentary, photos, and on-the-scene accounts of Pope Francis' first trip to the United States. Stay tuned!

Friday, Sept. 25
One thing to keep in mind as you read or listen to Francis' words this papal visit: I've heard from a number of friends, faithful Catholics all, that they find him bewildering, that he never seems to be speaking to them or never understanding their particular situation. There's really a simple reason for that: This visit is the first time the Holy Father has been speaking directly and, in some ways, only, to the Church in the U.S. I think he hasn't been speaking to a "Western," or even a northern audience for most of his pontificate. I think that John Allen is right that this is very much a man of the global south. He's been speaking to the majority of the Church, which means he's been speaking to non-European, non-American Catholics for much of his pontificate. Remember: we are not the whole of the Church! Hilaire Belloc's aphorism that "The Church is Europe, and Europe is the Church" has not been true for decades.

8 p.m.
The Madison Square Garden Mass was all about light and mercy.

The Holy Father spoke of the light of Christ shining today and the role of the faithful in making that light visible to all those around them. He described city life beautifully, familiarly, as one would expect from someone who's spent most of his life in Buenos Aires.

He took Isaiah's four prophetic titles for Christ ("Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace;" see Is 9:6) as the framework for the majority of his homily, calling on the Church to go out to the world in obedience to Christ's counsel, to recognize the Mighty God's presence in our midst, and to share that peace comes when we willingly walk with God and are set free from all selfishness.

His words on God as "Everlasting Father" are some powerful teaching on the mercy of God, and are a great preparation for the Jubilee Year of Mercy:

The Everlasting Father. No one or anything can separate us from his Love. Go out and proclaim, go out and show that God is in your midst as a merciful Father who himself goes out, morning and evening, to see if his son has returned home and, as soon as he sees him coming, runs out to embrace him. An embrace which wants to take up, purify and elevate the dignity of his children. A Father who, in his embrace, is "glad tidings to the poor, healing to the afflicted, liberty to captives, comfort to those who mourn" (Is 61:1-2).

6 p.m.
Well, I had my second personal Pope sighting this papal visit. The motorcade came cruising through Central Park, allowing the Holy Father to greet immense crowds and a whole lot of cell phones, cameras, and every other such device. He seems so energetic with the crowds, and yet I was in conversation with a photographer, Dennis Van Tine, who'd been able to make his way into some of the rather more restricted parts of the UN visit. He said that the Holy Father seemed tired, out of his element, unsure of whether he was in the place he should be, doing what he should be doing. Speaking of the address to the General Assembly, Van Tine said he "watched a man stare at his shoes for an hour." Going to the UN seems to have been a duty, necessary, important, but rather uncomfortable for the Holy Father. Why?

I think Pope Francis really is a pope of the people, really is a man who, whether by nature or by training, is least comfortable amongst wealth and power, and most comfortable amongst the poor, the excluded, the ordinary people waving to him from the streets. Each time I've seen him in these parades, he's seemed better than ever.

And such crowds! Some women near me said they'd heard rumors that New York bosses were getting fed up with the sheer number of people taking time off work to go to see the Pope. The response of many, though, was that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the Holy Father. After all, he's an older man, and has himself talked about the prospect of a relatively short pontificate. He may never return again to these shores.

And so the people took the time off, and came to see their Holy Father.

On the Subway to Penn Station this evening, I was wrestling with my bags and my camera, and my media credential fell out of my pocket. A woman a few feet away looked over, smiled, and said that she had a one a little like that. She had been one of the people chosen to play the music for the Vespers service with Pope Francis the evening before. She played the viola, she said — such a privilege to play for the Pope!

It's amazing who you can end up meeting on the New York Subway system.

And it was packed! Of course, all the people trying to leave the papal parade route meant the stations were packing the people into the subways as quickly as they could. It seems like I have nun sightings and priests sightings every hour.

5 p.m.
The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., makes an appearance again in Pope Francis' ... I was going to say "address," but ... well, read it. It's a father speaking to his children.

Anyway: The Holy Father talks about the importance of dreams and education, as well as giving the children encouragement at the start of a new school year. It's a little poignant, reading the words about starting school in a new place with new people and new routines for several reasons for me. First, I was a Coast Guard kid. I've never lived anywhere longer than five years. I know of what he speaks, here, and he's right on. Secondly, I can't help but see a little of Pope Francis' own experience of being elected to the papacy in his words to the children. Just read this section:

I know that it is not easy to have to move and find a new home, new neighbors and new friends. It is not easy. At the beginning it can be hard, right? Often you have to learn a new language, adjust to a new culture, even a new climate. There is so much to learn! And not just at school.

The good thing is that we also make new friends, we meet people who open doors for us, who are kind to us. They offer us friendship and understanding, and they try to help us not to feel like strangers. To feel at home. How nice it is to feel that school is a second home. This is not only important for you, but also for your families. School then ends up being one big family. One where, together with our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, our teachers and friends, we learn to help one another, to share our good qualities, to give the best of ourselves, to work as a team and to pursue our dreams.

And then at the end we get a perfect answer to all the street preachers claiming that the Catholic Church and the Holy Father does not seek to proclaim the Lord, Jesus Christ, in a simple request from the Holy Father to the gathered children:

Please don't forget to pray for me, so that I can share with many people the joy of Jesus. And let us also pray so that many other people can share the joy like yours.

Though these visits to charities and schools may seem like window-dressing or props to the Holy Father's reputation for simplicity and humility, if you look at what he says in each venue and what he looks like, you can see that he's at home amongst the poor, the young, the elderly, the vulnerable. He's not just reading his speeches, but talking to people, not just following protocol, but encountering others.

2 p.m.
The Holy Father's address at the 9/11 Memorial emphasized the importance, once again, of individual human beings, of persons, over against the ideological positions that we think justify violence.

In other words, he talked about those who had lost their lives. He focused on the families, on the victims, and on those who responded to the tragedy that day.

Earlier in the visit, he spoke of his own obligation to build bridges, an oblique reference to the role of the pope as pontifex maximus (supreme bridge-builder). Here at the 9/11 Memorial, he certainly expressed a determination to do just that through the interfaith encounter orchestrated for the papal visit to the site.

He returns once again to the idea of unity, not uniformity. It feels like an effort to take an aspect of the Catholic faith and model it for the world: the ability to both welcome all of humanity into her being while still preserving good, distinctive elements of each culture, each people, each region.

Pope Francis leads all gathered in a prayer for peace.

12 p.m.
I had been told I could get into the 9/11 Memorial Plaza to take some photos. They hadn't mentioned anything about a special credential.

So I, a reporter from a Spanish-language magazine, and a woman from some outlet never specified, all got told very politely by a Secret Service agent and, after some back and forth, nicely by a diocesan representative that regrettably, we could not get in, sorry.

Ah, well. I got to be one of the excluded! Francis would be so proud.

In all seriousness, it wasn't a bad place to be. We were told we could not go in at the corner of Liberty and Trinity, a rather ironic intersection, as I came to understand later. Right before us, many people were picking up their tickets or handing off their tickets to security in order to get in to be with the Pope. They said it was going to be an interreligious service, and man, I could tell they'd been telling the truth. By clothing alone, I could pick out Catholic priests in clerics, Catholic religious in habits, Protestant clergy in clerics (male and female), Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and other representatives of the major religions, and more.

And on the streets, well, there was an "ecumenical dialogue" of another sort underway.

In short: More street preachers.

There were some gentlemen on the street corners taking it in turn to, at the top of their lungs, proclaim the imminent damnation of Catholics and the need to turn away from the Church, accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, and believe the Gospel that these gentlemen were preaching.

They were the polite ones, the ones with whom one could have a conversation, and with whom one even might want to have a conversation. In fact, I listened to my own exhortations from earlier and did have a conversation with several of them. They took it in turn to attempt to argue with me, disclosing in the process that they all seemed to share a relatively similar Calvinist, Baptist faith. Hence the irony that the conversation took place at the intersection of Trinity and Liberty: Calvinists hold to a rather strong notion of predestination, saying that people are damned or saved by God from the start. We had a series of polite conversations, I left unconvinced, and I suspect they left unswayed.

Again: They were gentlemen, serving the Lord as best they knew how, seeking the good of their neighbors according to what they believed that good to be.

There was also another group of people on that street.

I can't swear to it — I confess, I did not attempt to go and ask — but I think they may have been from the Westboro Baptist Church, the notorious family religious organization that tends to protest military funerals and other such occasions. They were barricaded off by the security folk within their own little wedge of crowd control fences. No one else seemed to mind.

By the time I moved on from that place (hopes were in the air that when all the security people claimed that Pope Francis was certain not to enter here, it meant he was actually going to come through here for security reasons), there were one or two gentlemen declaiming through a loudspeaker on all the evils of Catholicism, declaring that various Catholic figures were even now burning in hell, and that we would all join them if we didn't accept the faith that these men urged upon us.

Blame my sheltered childhood: I hadn't ever seen such haranguing in real life. I knew some people felt called to street preaching, and there's certainly Scriptural precedent for it. There's also precedent in the lives of the saints and the great missionaries of the Church. But I think there may have been less shouting from the saints and rather more smiling, rather less threatening and rather more encouragement. I don't know. I do wish more of the Catholic faithful had engaged the men in conversation, and I wish a little that I had attempted to talk to the little island of protesters with the rather graphic signs. It seems like personal contact with Catholics who know and try to live their faith might be the only way to answer this sort of thing

Anyway: Please pray for them all, everyone who was preaching and protesting, as well as everyone who passed them by.

10 a.m.
New York City really does feel like the capital city of the world. You see every sort of human being walking down the street in front of you, every shade and hue of the human rainbow, hear every accent imaginable. It's fitting, then, that the United Nations has its headquarters here, and fitting that the Holy Father "for everybody" should come and give an address to the General Assembly.

The Vatican news portal has it that this was the first papal address to the UN to occur "during the annual 'heads of state and government' session that opens the work of the Assembly each year in the Fall." He's making history every day here, it seems.

It's no accident that the Holy Father focused on Servant of God Dorothy Day in his four great Americans featured in his address to Congress. Much of his UN address could have been drawn from the writings of Dorothy Day or her great inspiration, Peter Maurin. I'm especially struck by the place where he said,

... government leaders must do everything possible to ensure that all can have the minimum spiritual and material means needed to live in dignity and to create and support a family, which is the primary cell of any social development. In practical terms, this absolute minimum has three names: lodging, labour, and land; and one spiritual name: spiritual freedom, which includes religious freedom, the right to education and other civil rights.

That sounds very much as though it were drawn direct from Peter Maurin's Easy Essays. But then, of course, those same essays drew deeply upon the social teaching of the Catholic Church, so both Pope Francis and Peter Maurin were drawing from the same well. If you've never read anything by Dorothy Day or Peter Maurin, I highly recommend looking into Maurin's Easy Essays (they really are easy, some more so than others) and Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness, consider a classic spiritual autobiography. They'll go a long way toward helping you understand the present Pope, I think, and his concerns.

He's doing an end run around the secular world, I suspect. By focusing on the natural world in this address, in Laudato Si', and elsewhere, he's helping resurrect the natural law tradition in public discourse from an unexpected angle. The world works in a certain way. To live justly, we must live in a way that respects that natural order. To violate the natural order brings swift retribution and dire consequences, for this is the way of nature. Part of that natural order is the fact that the family is the basic cell of society. We must support the family and protect it in order to help support and protect the environment, our common home, and in order to protect the excluded, the vulnerable, the least of these.

He's taking the pro-life commitments of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and all his predecessors; taking the Christian tradition of stewardship when it comes to the environment and to our brother; and offering them to modernity as a grand, synthetic vision, a "seamless garment," to borrow a phrase, and the modern world is wildly enthusiastic. They do not seem to realize the implications of this worldview which they are so occupied in applauding.

His strategy is made abundantly clear here:

The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species. The baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power, must serve as a summons to a forthright reflection on man: "man is not only a freedom which he creates for himself. Man does not create himself. He is spirit and will, but also nature" (BENEDICT XVI, Address to the Bundestag, 22 September 2011, cited in Laudato Si', 6). Creation is compromised "where we ourselves have the final word… The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any instance above ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves" (ID. Address to the Clergy of the Diocese of Bolzano-Bressanone, 6 August 2008, cited ibid.). Consequently, the defence of the environment and the fight against exclusion demand that we recognize a moral law written into human nature itself, one which includes the natural difference between man and woman (cf. Laudato Si', 155), and absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions (cf. ibid., 123, 136). (emphasis added)

So the challenge cuts both ways: Conservatives must recognize the need to accept certain sacrifices of economic efficiency and personal autonomy in the name of the common good. Liberals must recognize a law inherent to human nature that says the sexual revolution is wrong, and that abortion is the taking of innocent human life.

This is a deeply Catholic challenge, a call to examination and conversion for all. Pope Francis is not affirming anyone in their okayness, but rather saying that as children of God, we are all called to a higher standard, a different way of living, than our ideologies even imagine possible.

Echoes of St. John XXIII, Blessed Paul VI, St. John Paul II, and Pope Benedict abound throughout the document. Pope Francis is a great student of his predecessors, or has the assistance of some great students of his predecessors.

He also had some good words for UN employees here.

Visit here for all papal visit coverage.

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