The memories will linger for a long time: being given the gift of a ticket to attend the papal Mass at Madison Square Garden; being among the throngs of people who walked around block after city block for hours on end, hoping to be allowed in; going through the various layers of security and going up the escalators to the level I was supposed to go and finding the seat I was supposed to sit in; and most of all, being one of a vast sea of people present to be as one with the man whom we believe to be the Vicar of Christ on Earth, Pope Francis. All of this, to see him adorned in green vestments, ready to proclaim words of hope and encouragement and to finally see him standing there, where normally center court would be. And I, along with many others, would be there with him, to participate in a specially shared encounter.
Once seated—and before the Mass started—my mind and my memories drifted to another time, some 36 years before in that very same place, when another pope, who was just as alive and electrifying with his presence and with his words, brought a crowd of sleepy-headed teenagers to their feet chanting raucous New York-accented Italian, “Viva! Viva il Papa!” until their vocal cords became hoarse.
The place was Madison Square Garden of course, but that occasion wasn’t for a Mass, but a “youth rally,” which was possibly the precursor of what was to become the phenomenally successful “World Youth Day”—only no one knew it then. The pope was a youthful 59-year-old, formerly Karol Wojtyla, cardinal archbishop of Krakow, Poland. Only this time, he was presently known by his new papal name, John Paul II.
In that year since being elected to the papacy, John Paul II captured the world’s attention, not just because he was the first pontiff from the “Eastern bloc” nations (that is, those nations of Europe that had been Communist-controlled since the end of World War II), but because of his youthfulness: he sang—TIME magazine quoted an elderly Jesuit in the Vatican as being aghast at the very idea of a pope singing: “Popes do not sing!” he said emphatically—he swam, he skied, he wrote poetry and climbed mountains. He wasn’t a pope to be carried around in the papal sedan known as the sedia gestatoria. So when it was announced that he was making a pilgrimage to the United States with stops in Boston, Washington, Chicago, Des Moines and Philadelphia, and which would include New York, the city went wild with anticipation.
I was a student at St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School in the Bronx back then. I was 18 years old and in my senior year, studying for an unknown—and unknowable—future. I eagerly signed up for the trip, even though it meant that I had to be up by 5AM in order to shortly be at school to be a part of a two bus contingent representing our school and parish at the rally. (And, for me, it would be the precursor of a lifetime of early morning rising, particularly for that adventure known as work.) It promised to be a great time; the new pope, being interiorly and exteriorly free, could do things that (as he said later) that could appear to be “breaking up the program”—he was known to be unpredictable. And he was; besides giving what would become his standard credo (“Be not afraid! Open up all the doors wide for Christ!”), he had a penchant for being playful, as we Bronx teenagers in the Garden was to learn that day.
And then it came—over the loudspeakers—in a strong, husky voice, with rising cadences: “Wooooooooooooooo….wooooooooooooooo.” And then again, “Woooooooooo….woooooooooo!!” We looked at each other. What happened? Did somebody hijack the sound system, making funny—or obscene—noises? Or was somebody having a medical emergency, possibly? No, no, no and no! It was the pope enjoying the moment being among his 19,000 “fellow teenagers.” He was holding up his papers of his official talk and waving them and uttering what was the Polish version of “WOW!” “Wooooo, woooo, woooo” wooed the pope, again, once more. The pope was a teenager among teenagers that day, especially when he held up one of the gifts he was given that was part and parcel of teenage apparel: a pair of Levi’s blue jeans (adult size 38).
I looked up. There he was now, in the popemobile, circling the Garden, waving, blessing, smiling, laughing. Embracing all and being all with everyone present. Raucous cheers and shouts of “Viva! Viva il Papa!” He was one with the crowd and they were one with him. All the hours of waiting, all the inconveniences, the delays, the security checkpoints, the misdirections, all vanished now. And we were with him, finally.
Now, the closer he came to the specially made platform and altar, the clearer he became. Pope Francis was within view, and I could see his familiar form. I was so far up in the stands that it was hard to see. I was seated in a section behind the altar that was within sights of the television cameras. (I had a better view this time around; back in high school, when I went to see Pope John Paul II, my particular group was seated way, way up in what was called the “nosebleed section.” From that distance, John Paul was but a white dot way down in the bowels of the arena. But no matter—I was there that time and though I might not have seen him, I definitely heard him.)
It was the Mass we all knew, only a little more elaborate than your ordinary parish weekday/weekend Mass: special music and special prayers, with the petitions of the faithful reflecting the variety of God’s people: Gaelic, Spanish, Mandarin, French, and of course, English. It was a reflection of American society—and it was a reflection on that society, given the acrimonious debates on immigration and inculturation that is ongoing in our political discourse. Those prayers essentially were a reflection on the American past as well as on the American future. They were in sync with the views of an immigrant’s son who was now the pope. The Mass was officially called: “The Celebration of the Eucharist For the Preservation of Peace and Justice.” Amidst the sea of faithful and dozens of assembled bishops, archbishops and cardinals, Pope Francis led everyone in prayer. It began with the incensing of the altar and the homily (in Spanish and English) of the pope which stressed spirituality despite the smog which is the incense of modern life.
But recall now all those who did whatever what was necessary to get there: the long hours endured from traveling by plane, train, automobile, cab and subway. And especially those who walked, and walked and walked, not knowing whether they would ever get in the Garden on time. And the people themselves: some doubtful, some irritable, but most people equipped with cheerful countenances and with great reservoirs of patience and fortitude, knowing that their goal of seeing Pope Francis was coming to fruition. I remember the Sisters of Life embedded in the crowds, singing religious songs in an attempt to revive everyone’s spirits (and quite possibly even their own). Their singing was beautiful and uplifting, but I couldn’t help thinking (but not maliciously, I assure you) that the song they should have sung was “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” with its refrain, “It’s a long way to go.”
A long time ago when I was a high school senior—when I had gone to the Garden the first time—I was on the staff of the 1980 high school yearbook, The Tolentian. I was given the honor of being assigned to write about the visit of Pope John Paul II to the Garden. In an essay called “Charismatic Moment” (which was published uncredited!) I began it (with typical overheated adolescence prose of a teenage journalist wanna-be) with a sentence which pretty much described the visit of Pope Francis: “For all eternity it was a day to be remembered and treasured. People scrambled about so they could get a peek, a glimpse, or even a chance to personally feel his holy presence. They screamed, stomped, cheered, laughed and cried—all because of a special person…” I described it as “a great event.” Given the passage of 36 years, those words of my 18-year-old self, describing Pope John Paul’s presence at the Garden back then, pretty much summed up the special encounter that occurred on September 25, 2015 with the presence of Pope Francis.
Before long, that special man in the green vestments who embodied love, peace and mercy left the arena, but not before he made his expected plea: “Please pray for me.” And then—slowly—the great crowd dispersed, many heading for the food court, ready to chow down on a quick meal of a hot dog and a Coke before the journey home and to tell others along the way of the event they were privileged to witness on a pleasant fall evening.
It was a “long way to go” to get there, but it was worth it. It was worth all the anticipation, and it was worth the long hours of walking and it was worth the even longer hours of waiting. But most of all, it was worth all the hoping. And it was worth the chance to see Pope Francis, even if all I got to see of him was his back. And that was worth it, knowing that even for a brief time, I was in his presence and he was in my prayers.