In Madison Square Garden, Pope Francis proclaimed that God is present in the big city, and that God who walks at our side is a God who frees us from self-absorption.
I was fortunate to win a ticket to the papal Mass, but I was truly blessed to witness the presence of Christ in New York.
Every moment preceding the celebration and the sign value of so many believers gathered in a public space was extraordinary. This was an epic encounter with the Lord, esconded yet ever present.
It was my first return to New York since I relocated in May and I made special preparations for the journey. I made sure my phone was fully charged so I could take pictures. I packed a strategically small purse, and bought special knitting needles that would pass through security checkpoints so I could knit during the train ride. A young priest and parishioners of his parish in Ogdensburg, travelling from the World Meeting in Philadelphia, happened to be seated nearby. After several rows of knitted progress and good conversation, we went in separate directions when the train reached New York.
On Eighth Avenue, outside Penn Station, it was clear that this was a high-security event, yet it was so calm, it was baffling.
“How do I get into Madison Square Garden?” I asked a police officer.
He directed me to 31st Street.
I asked again, “How do I…?”
A volunteer directed me to keep walking.
City block by city block, my tired eyes scanned the line of faithful Catholics, prospecting for the smile of a familiar face. It was an endless procession of enthusiastic women and men, priests, nuns, children and the elderly.
After walking nearly 10 blocks from the entrance of Madison Square Garden, I found the place that awaited me. Four young people were in line directly ahead of me. Three had received tickets one day prior, on Thursday. One received a phone call earlier in the same morning that there was a ticket that was available for him. We stood in the same place on 23rd Street for nearly an hour as the line grew. I started to recognize familiar faces, and even offered to let a few sneak in line behind me but they politely declined.
With my four newfound friends, we took turns scouting out local businesses with clean restrooms, and ran into different stores to buy snacks. Two hours later, we reached the corner of 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue. Three hours later we reached 28th street.
“What if they stop letting people in?” one kept asking.
She had heard that when Pope Benedict visited, even ticketholders were not allowed entrance after a certain time. I didn’t want to entertain the idea, but I have to admit, even if I had been turned away at the door, I would have enjoyed a once in a lifetime experience of genuine Christian fellowship in an otherwise frenetic city. A young man riding a bicycle ran over my foot — and then asked me to move.
“God bless you!” someone cried to him.
This kind of response was not the norm in New York.
I finally reached my destination, somewhere on the 10th floor of Madison Square Garden by 5 p.m. I was happy to rest, but happier to discover that I was able to connect with God and connect with others in this cavernous secular space.
When Mass started, I was amazed at how clearly I heard every word in the arena! I was destined to hear the pope’s message — in this place, in this time and particularly in the context of the day’s journey. Especially when I lived in New York, and even now as a single person in a small town, it is easy to feel invisible. Many times, I persuaded my younger self that I needed to be louder, more assertive or to compromise my inherent convictions — but no, those choices are unbecoming to me. The pope’s message reminded me to stay humble and to open my eyes before parting my lips.
Now that the pope has returned to Rome, and the festivities have concluded, I pray that his simple message of compassion remains with us. Hope was a whirlpool, freeing us from isolation, drawing us into community, into communication, and into communion in the center of a city that never sleeps. Christ shone brighter than a thousand suns on the perfect September afternoon. It was a miraculous day in New York that was free of enmity and competition.
As Pope Francis quoted Isaiah, “The people in darkness have seen a great light….” I quote the Holy Father’s message, “We as Christians are witnesses to this.…”
Elena V. Brandt is pastoral associate for music and liturgy, St. Clare of Assisi Parish, Swedesboro.