Can it really be five years since Pope Francis was among us New Yorkers in person at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Madison Square Garden, Central Park, the United Nations, the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum and meeting with students and immigrants? Well, the calendar agrees, so a short look back at the spiritually elevating visit seems in order.
The Holy Father not only came to be with us, he captured our hearts as we received an intimate view of many Gospel-inspired encounters. New Yorkers, a famously been-there, done-that crowd, gave him a reception for the ages as we embraced him with our hearts and souls from first sight. At the time of his apostolic visit to the United States and Cuba, the then-78-year-old pope was just two-and-a-half years into a pontificate that began in March 2013.
Time seemed almost to stand still when Pope Francis was with us, and he left his mark in many memorable ways. I remember waiting, literally for hours, with other media members in seating set up in one of the side altars of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which gleamed in the glow of its restoration. As the hour of the evening prayer (vespers) neared on Sept. 24, 2015, the congregation’s anticipation built to almost a fevered pitch, with some standing atop pews in the back to get a glimpse as the pontiff came down the center aisle with Cardinal Dolan.
Speaking specifically to the many priests and nuns assembled, Pope Francis’ words perfectly summed up the moment that everyone present in St. Patrick’s was experiencing.
“Joy springs from a grateful heart,” he said. “Truly, we have received much, so many graces, so many blessings, and we rejoice in this.”
Cardinal Dolan, in his remarks, said that once the Holy Father had passed through the cathedral’s grand front doors on Fifth Avenue, he had become “an official New Yorker.”
My wife was there that night, sitting in one of the pews in the back, and as we walked with a few others outside immediately after the service, we basked in how great it was to have been present. A few months earlier, I had suffered a serious health problem, so my being able to participate filled us both with profound gratitude.
The next day, I was fortunate to be seated near the front of the 20,000-person congregation packed into Madison Square Garden for the Papal Mass.
“One special quality of God’s people,” the pope said in his homily, “is their ability to see, to contemplate, even in ‘moments of darkness,’ the light which Christ brings.”
Before he arrived, the pontiff thrilled thousands lined up in Central Park to get a glimpse of him riding past in the popemobile.
Wanda Vasquez, the director of Hispanic Ministry in the archdiocese, said this week that her office had distributed 1,000 tickets to the faithful assembled in Central Park. She remembers the pope stopping to greet people along the route several times. One moment that has stayed with her was when Pope Francis stepped down and walked over to gently say hello to a little girl.
“People were crying out of happiness,” she said. “There was excitement, screaming, yelling. They were so happy to be part of that moment.” She didn’t even mind arriving late to Madison Square Garden, because as it turned out, the pope was late getting there too.
Many parishioners later contacted her office to express their gratitude. “They said, ‘Thank you so much, I may never get to Rome, but I got a chance to see the pope,’” Ms. Vasquez said. “They were ecstatic and happy and went to their parishes and prayed for him.”
Others called to say how moved they were by the pope’s appearance at the National Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum. At least one man, whose brother was killed that day, said the visit gave him a sense of peace.
It’s good to remember happy times, moments of pure joy, likes the ones we experienced when Pope Francis was with us. We should also remember his message about the Light of Christ being present and visible through the darkness of our times.