Pope Francis walks in the procession at the start of Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York Sept. 25. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Beloved of Madison Square

It is Friday afternoon and my fellow America editor Ashley McKinless and I have finally settled into front-row, fourth-floor press seats surrounded by radio journalists, overlooking an arena that will soon fill up with 20,000 fans. Pope Francis, who will arrive five hours later, will speak of those attending the Mass at Madison Square Garden as a mini-version of the vast New York City steeped in “smog”: diversity glued together by love. 

I have left my seat to explore the long commercial corridor  of fast food— burgers, hot dogs, ice cream, pizzas and sodas, but no beer for this holy event—to nourish thousands of priests, monks in long grey habits and hoods, seminarians, nuns, teachers and families. On the other side of the wall a symphony orchestra and choir entertain the gathering throngs. Harry Connick Jr. has just opened up with “Oklahoma,” and is moving into “How Great Thou Art.”

A priest hears Confession in the corridor of Madison Square Garden (Photo credit: Ashley McKinless)

A priest hears Confession in the corridor of Madison Square Garden (Photo credit: Ashley McKinless)

I am armed with the basic tools of my trade—a reporter’s notebook and a ball point pen—and scope the crowd for someone to interview. Sitting on the other side of the long hall, a young priest, one of many scattered throughout the corridor, bends over listening intently to a young woman; she leaves and a young man settles into her chair. The space is as public as a park or a Manhattan sidewalk; but they are going to Confession. 

I walk away and come back, leave my half-eaten, burnt cheeseburger and introduce myself. Why is he doing this? He goes where the people who need him are, he says. Here he is an instrument of grace. He is moved by the spirit of Pope Francis and his passionate love for the poor. His name?  Father Michael Sliney, L.C., chaplain of the Lumen Institute, and a Legionnaire of Christ. The Legion has gone through hard times, I say. How has that affected him? They have had to learn from it, he replied. It was “humiliating, but helpful.”

Suddenly a group of young priests from a variety of countries—the Philippines, Dominican Republic, Ethiopia—were  clustered around. Father Ray Garcia, a graduate student in education at St. John’s University, explains to me his doctoral thesis on the perception of leadership among Catholic school teachers. I share my thoughts based on my experiences as a college dean. He is anticipating running a school and wants to be well prepared on just what strategies work in dealing with faculty. 

Fathers Ray Garcia and Gemelchu Yonas

Gemelchu Yonas, a Vincentian priest from Ethiopia, has been at St. John’s for two years working for a Master’s in education. Back home his order has about five high schools and several elementary schools. Meanwhile he is happy with the Vincentian community here, the way Americans treat their school children and having travelled all over the United States, he has learned the way Americans achieve unity in a culture of diversity. His only complaint: the cold.

Determined to talk to younger people, Ashley and I flagged down two bright-looking, neatly dressed young men, alike enough to be twins, wearing maroon sport shirts from Camden Seminary. Very politely, they had to turn us down. It seems that their religious superiors have forbidden them to talk to the press without permission. Undaunted, a few minutes later we tried another pair from the same seminary—their reply was virtually word-for-word a “sorry but….” We continued our search, this time for a young woman. In a flash, two other Camden seminarians sailed by, but we let them pass.

Suzanna Pontillo, raised in Rochester, has been teaching fourth graders at P.S. 62 in the South Bronx for eight years. She’s enjoying the day waiting for Pope Francis enormously because she is with her sister who is a reporter for Time magazine and who coaches girls basketball at the CYO. The pope has been extolling American diversity in several talks, and she is a teacher with a classroom full of children from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. And here she is following the pope in person and on TV at the same time that Jews and Muslims are celebrating their holidays. What will she take away from this experience? Pope Francis’ love of children and his insistence on the Golden Rule, “Do unto others….”

Sheila Leonard, whose mother Julia Leonard worked in the America office  under editor Donald Campion, S.J., in the 1970s, is an experienced pope-watcher: Pope John Paul II in Rome and again when he came to the United States, in Yankee Stadium and Central Park; but she is really taken with Pope Francis because of his commitment to dialogue and to listening. Because he listens, he understands how the world has changed. She feels more affinity with Francis partly because of his courage in calling upon the U.S. Congress to get rid of capital punishment. He has set a tone for the conversation we all must have.

Suddenly I looked up and standing there were the second pair of seminarians from Camden. They had called their religious superior and gotten permission to talk with these two people from America—and they had a lot to say. Peter Gallagher, 21, has entered from high school and had been in the seminary four years; Anthony Infanti, 31, is a second year theologian at Seton Hall. 

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Seminarians Peter Gallagher and Anthony Infanti

As a fellow New Jerseyan, I pushed them on the fact that their seminary was in the middle of one of the most crime-ridden, poverty-stricken cities in the state. Didn’t that intimidate them when they considered their apostolate? Far from it. They told me about a group called Camden Church for People, organized by the poor people themselves in an attempt to organize and save the city and bring Christ into the life of the citizens. Gallagher has picked up his vocation from his parish priest and high school teacher. What would he say to young people today, I asked. He would do his best to show them that they must have a relationship with Jesus Christ and that God is really alive within them. And this prayer must lead to action.

It was getting late. Soon Pope Francis will roll out and circle the ground floor, then return at the end of a procession of 50 bishops to call us into the presence of God.