When I found out that I'd won a ticket in the New York City ticket lottery for Pope Francis' procession through Central Park, I was thrilled — and even more so because my fiancé, Steve, won a ticket, too. Both of us were raised Catholic, and seeing a pope in real life seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. (Steve saw Pope Benedict while studying abroad in Rome.) I was even more excited for Pope Francis' visit when I found out he was visiting my neighborhood, East Harlem, before the procession. Pope Francis' procession through Central Park was crowded, and it didn't last long, but the day's events helped me remember what's great about being part of a Catholic community in the first place.
Last year, Steve, my mom, and I attended the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, so I thought I was prepared for the crowds that would accompany Pope Francis' visit, but I was completely wrong. Tens of thousands of people showed up to see Pope Francis on Friday. Just getting through security took us almost three hours. It didn't feel like we were standing around for that long, though — we overheard some interesting (and heartwarming) conversations between priests and children in the crowd. And it was exciting just to be there, surrounded by other people with similar beliefs.
Before we entered the "Green Zone" security maze, which wrapped from our entrance to Central Park at 61st Street all the way to 66th Street, we witnessed a number of street vendors selling plenty of items emblazoned with Pope Francis' face. There were "I Heart Pope Francis" t-shirts and pins, Vatican City flags, and, of course, plenty of rosaries.
After waiting in the gate crowd for the better part of the afternoon, we got through to the event security around 3 p.m. Actual TSA agents were on site to make sure no one brought weapons into the event, and we had to walk through metal detectors, too. We didn't have to worry about being bored between the time we entered the park and the procession's beginning, though — waiting in line for the porta-potties took more than half an hour.
When we finally got to the procession area, I finally realized how big the crowd really was. Steve and I weren't too far from the front of the crowd where we were standing, but it still felt like we were far away, because there were so many people crammed into the space.
During the time we waited at the park for the procession to start, I wondered if the other crowd members, like me, had a fuzzy understanding of the pope's actual role in the church. After all, the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church aren't changing anytime soon. But whether or not they knew the doctrines about why Catholics have popes, tens of thousands of people had showed up hours in advance, hoping to catch a glimpse of one of them.
The processional itself was much quicker than I'd expected — Pope Francis was only in front of us for a minute or two, if that. Standing on tiptoes, I could still barely see the top of the Popemobile, and I didn't see Pope Francis at all. To tell the truth, I saw most of the procession through the screens of iPads and cellphones in front of me. (Luckily, we do have some documentation of the pope's appearance — at 6'3", Steve was able to capture a few blurry photos of Pope Francis from where I couldn't see.) The events transpired quickly — people screaming in excitement for a minute, and then the procession rolled away.
On our subway ride home, I told Steve I was disappointed that I hadn't been able to see Pope Francis or take a photo of him. It wasn't just that we'd waited in the sun all day; I likely won't have another chance to see a pope. An elderly man who had also been at the procession overheard our conversation, and he turned to us and said, "You don't have to see him — you can feel him."
The man was completely right — but his statement also made me realize why so many people were so eager to see the procession. It's not about catching a blurry photo, or the opportunity to briefly witness the back of Pope Francis' head. Pope Francis is someone who brings church members together, no matter what their beliefs, and Friday's events symbolized that. It's easy to fall out of the Catholic church, especially if you find many of its teachings outdated. But Pope Francis puts out a message of love and charity in a way other popes haven't. With statements like "Who am I to judge?" Pope Francis makes people feel like they can belong in the church, even if they haven't felt that way before.
If you've attended Catholic school, you've probably heard — plenty of times — that the word "Catholic" comes from a Greek word meaning "universal." Pope Francis, more than anyone, preaches that message. Attending his papal procession, and making peace with not actually seeing him at it, helped me appreciate Catholicism's universality on a larger scale. In the end, Friday's events weren't about a Pope Francis "celebrity sighting" — he's still a human, after all, and he hasn't actually changed any of the church's teachings. Instead, at least for me, the procession was about being a part of a Catholic community — a universal one, where everyone should be treated as equals and with kindness. Now that's a message we can all get behind.
Images: Meghan DeMaria (4), Steve Burges (3)