The Big Apple Falls for Pope Francis

In our era of skepticism and apathy, this kind of respect for a religious leader is jarring. But also, no matter what religion you subscribe to, it's actually refreshing.

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Suddenly, New York has become a city of religious pilgrims. Rarely do New Yorkers forgive traffic delays – but on Friday afternoon, despite the closed streets, the pope, ah, a small smile flutters on their faces, and "I saw his motorcade drive by."

This morning, Pope Francis led a multi-faith service at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum – the first pontiff to visit the site since its opening.

The ceremony, attended by families of 9/11 victims and first responders, featured blessings and prayers from Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Native American leaders.

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue and Imam Khalid Latif of NYU opened the ceremony. Cosgrove called for the building of a "field hospital after battle, to heal the wounds and warm the hearts of a humanity in so desperate need of comfort." The imam quoted the Quran: "One life lost is like all mankind, one life saved is like all mankind. To God, all life is sacred and precious; when others fail, let us be the reminders of this." Pope Francis spoke of the fallen and called for a moment of silent prayer: "Together, we are called to say ‘no’ to every attempt to make us the same, and ‘yes’ to accepting diversity and reconciliation."

Yet as the ceremony took place downtown, further uptown, close to 100,000 New Yorkers began lining up six hours in advance to enter Central Park to watch the papal procession. Entrants all bore tickets won through a lottery announced a month ago.

Young families with strollers, couples arm-in-arm, the elderly with canes and folding chairs. The residents on Central Park West leaned out of their windows.

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"They say it's the road to purgatory," one Irish gentleman huffed, gesturing at the long line ahead. 

So what is it about the pope that drives Catholics and non-Catholics out alike to wait for five hours in line and then line Central Park's roads?

"I'm really moved by the pope's message of hope and caring," said Eric Mauser of Long Island, who came with his parents. "So few things in this world are positive, and he's one of them. I hope to bring his positivity to my own life. Makes you think twice about being nicer to people on the street or to your coworkers or parents. I think there's a lot of optimism, a lot of people want to do good things in the world. This is an opportunity to express it."

"I'm so proud the pope came here," said Jose Gualba, originally from Ecuador, standing next to his wife who waved a flag bearing the Vatican seal. This is Gualba's second time seeing a pope. "Last time, I saw John Paul," he says.  "I see people becoming more religious, because of his message of hope for the whole world, for world peace.  I remember when he was elected, I was crying in the car as I was crossing Lincoln Tunnel."

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Mary Angela Kennedy, a Catholic first grade teacher at St. Joseph's in Bronxville, can't stop smiling. "The Holy Father is so inspirational," she tells me, sitting on the grass. "I couldn't believe I won this lottery ticket to see him. He's so right in what he says. We need to help the poor, those on the periphery. He doesn't look at people as religions. He's really... human. He's not a high priest. In Argentina it was so important to him that all the priests had to work with the poor. I cook for the poor, I teach, I do everything I can. He's the one who inspires me to do what I do."

The crowd drew quite a few non-Catholics, too. "I'm not so religious but the pope's done a lot of good," said Mimi Callagn from Brooklyn. "We see many religious leaders who don't show their love for people, but he does."

"We love Papa Francisco," said Antoinetta Bacero, a tourist from Venezuela, enthused. "By coming here today, we will be blessed and our family too. He's human, you know."

"Humility!" Her husband Gustavo interjects. "He has humility!"

As the minutes go on, and the procession nears, thousands hold their breaths as the autumn afternoon cools down. A group of schoolgirls sing religious songs in Spanish. The moment a helicopter passes, people jump to their feet. People monitor papal movements on their phones. "He's entering Harlem now," someone announces. 

"Look," someone pats me on the shoulder. The crowd is looking up, gasping – a rainbow has appeared. "A papal miracle!" People shout and take out their phones.

When the pope finally drove by – the park erupted in cheers, phones shot up to capture the moment. Catholics spread their arms, inviting blessings from their religious leader, women cross themselves, a flurry of tears and screams: "Pope Francis, pray for us."

In a city known for its proud secularism, the sort of devotion of the tens of thousands who waited for hours and went through TSA searches to catch a glimpse of the pontiff is shocking. Or perhaps, this may be the portrait of a side of this city we often overlook in our sweeping odes in essays and Instagram posts to Manhattan: Here, the religious communities of Washington Heights, Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn gather. 

Today, for a moment, the heart of New York City has stopped still – for the humble Argentine priest who chose to be a man of the people. In our era of skepticism and apathy, in my generation's obsessively-lauded irreverence – this kind of respect for a religious leader is jarring. But also, no matter what religion you subscribe to, it's actually refreshing.

 One can only hope this respect for the at once sacred and human lasts, beyond the parades and fanfare, and into the day to day.