The Triumph of B16
Lest there was anyone who didn't already see The Visit as a stunning success, the photo of an open-armed, beaming Benedict XVI on the steps of St Patrick's probably changed quite a few minds... a transition seemingly sealed by the blaring headline leading the paper's coverage:
A moment of hope, challenge, a steadfast call to unity and relaunching of the American Catholic project -- and, so it's seemed, a transformative journey for the Man in White -- the Pope's weeklong US tour wraps today with a bang, one intended to resonate far beyond the Big Apple's five boroughs.
The final lap starts early with what'll be one of the six-day trek's emotional peaks. At 9.30, the pontiff will descend in silence into the crater at Ground Zero, offer the already well-circulated prayer for peace and forgiveness, sprinkle the four cardinal points with holy water, and meet a group comprised of both relatives of 9/11 victims and first responders from the attack on the Twin Towers.
After returning to the Mission House for lunch and a breather, it's off to the Bronx for the climactic 2.30pm Mass in Yankee Stadium -- the third papal liturgy on the site of the first Mass a Pope had ever celebrated on the American continent. Before a crowd of over 60,000 representing a majority of US Catholicism's 195 dioceses, Benedict will offer a final major message to the Stateside church as a whole in the place long hailed as the "City of Immigrants."
On an aesthetic note, while Thursday's liturgy in Washington's Nationals Park was crafted to reflect the feel of a parish Mass, New York will pull out its highest tradition of cathedral worship for the ballpark Eucharist, including soloists from the Metropolitan Opera, a 200-voice choir and scores of orchestral players under the direction of the masterful Dr Jennifer Pascual, the musician-in-chief of St Patrick's Cathedral.
The Yankee liturgy has been planned not as a Gotham celebration, but a national one, commemorating the bicentennial of the American fold's first expansion -- the birth of the church of Baltimore as an ecclesiastical province, with suffragans established at Bardstown (now Louisville), Boston, New York and Philadelphia. While Benedict had only been joined at the altar by the archbishop of the place and his Secretary of State for this visit's two prior public liturgies, today the incumbent successors of John Carroll, John Lefevre de Cheverus, Richard Concanen, Michael Egan and the saintly Benedict Flaget will take up spots beside the successor of Peter, serving as lead concelebrants as the coats of arms of the Founding Five lead the backdrop in the outfield of the House that Ruth Built.
Following the Mass -- for which the Vatican advance team had reportedly sought a morning start-time given the Pope's preferences -- it's back to the UN House for a round of farewells, after which Benedict will be transported to the Wall Street Heliport and taken to JFK Airport. There, having entered the diocese of Brooklyn, Benedict will be seen off by 1,500 immigrants of the local church that stands as the nation's unparalleled "melting pot"; the group will sing and pray in over 20 languages prior to the pontiff's arrival. And then, with a White House representative on hand and some final words of farewell, the Volo Papale will take off back to Rome.
The Pope might've finally employed the term "New Pentecost" yesterday morning, but the newness of springtime had already come with him to the canyons of Manhattan.
Friday was the season's first genuinely beautiful day in the "capital of the world." But that doesn't explain why something unique could be felt in the Gotham air.
Believe me, I've been 'round these parts long enough to know.
Many moons ago, I spent a year living in New York, down on the friendly confines of the Lower East Side. By Providence, that year just happened to be 2002 -- the year everything we thought we knew was turned upside down... the year we came to know the extent to which our leadership had failed us... the year that remains the most painful of my life.
And in its way, this city saved me. Its life filled me with the kind of wonder you can't find anywhere else on this earth, its energy provided a shot of hope and, well, blessed distraction at the time I needed it most. And it was here when, late one fall night of that dreadful year, something snapped inside me and I sat down at the computer and started writing... and writing... and writing... and, after sunrise, looked out onto Union Square and realized that it was what I wanted to do with my life.
I'm not here full-time anymore, but this is still the place that I love more than any other... indeed, the place I call home. And yet, for all the time I've ever spent holding court on Avenue A, watching out for moving platforms and slipping off to the Cloisters, I never felt anything like what rocked the night here on the Pope's first night in town.
Of course, it'd been 13 years since a pontiff had come to this island, and much had changed since the fall of 1995, the first time I ever saw a Pope in the flesh, albeit from a football field away.
This time, though, given what's since transpired, it was completely different. At least, it was supposed to be. And, so it was said, not for the better, either.
In my prayer, I've long felt that the ground here in the Northeast has cried out for renewal -- (what should be) panic-inducing levels of participation, low credibility of local leadership, little to no sense of general vocation (along with a concurrent lack of seminarians) and an institutional culture that evolved from administration to management and, in the process, sought to replace fire with a light-bulb can easily lead one to that conclusion. But given the premium on pack mentality of this part of the Big Tent, where change of any sort can seem akin to denying Revelation, it's very easy to feel that you're alone and, ergo, crazy, that everything's fine and you're just connecting dots that don't exist.
A friend in Midtown told me that Friday at St Patrick's was like a Sunday in terms of turnout, people flooding the place. Once I made my own way into town, it was easier than usual to find crosses or rosaries around necks abounding on the streets, and the feeling was just... Good. Encouraging. Supportive. Enthusiastic. All in a way it hadn't felt here, or anywhere around here, in a long time.
Later in the evening, while waiting to do a radio interview, I sat by the big fountain behind 30 Rock -- the GE Building, NBC Studios, etc. -- to kill time and just soak up being back here again.
It was a picture-perfect night, with just enough haze/smog in the air to give the lights of Times Square a brilliant shade of a "halo" effect. And then... from the distance... music could be heard. Voices and guitar. Joyous song.
"Holy! Holy! Holy!"
Over and over again.
"Holy! Holy! Holy!"
With each iteration, it came closer.
"Holy! Holy! Holy!"
Repetitive, exuberant chants are no surprise to anyone used to this place -- but from the sound, it became clear that these weren't the Hare Krishnas everyone's used to seeing roam the downtown streets.
And then they appeared: Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Sisters of Life, a host of other orders male and female, cassocked sems and, more than any other, layfolk. Fifty, maybe 70 of 'em. All young. All together. All one. All looking just like me.
"Holy! Holy! Holy!"
Each bore candles, turned heads and kept the singing up, making it a bit louder as the horns and engine-noises of 6th Ave. right by Radio City on a Friday night sought to drown them out.
I couldn't help but smile, simply to find that, in the midst of the city some have sought to portray as the global seat of the secularist behemoth, I wasn't alone.
"Holy! Holy! Holy!"
Seeing a beaming onlooker, one perceptive Sister of Life jumped out of the crowd and handed me a prayer-card.
"We're heading down to where he's staying to sing 'Happy Birthday,'" she said. Clearly, no further explanation was necessary.
"You're welcome to join us."
With a studio cameo on deck, I couldn't... and only later did I learn that, from all over the city, crowds like this one were walking, making station stops at the various parishes -- many of which stayed open, many welcoming large crowds of their own into the night -- all to congregate at the Mission House to sing and pray together.
In a word, it was... amazing. It blew me away. The contagious joy that marked each face, the light each carried -- not the candles -- broke through a darkness that's long existed on these streets... one that could never be measured in watts or stops of sunlight.
It's common knowledge that the busiest day of the year at the House That Hughes Built isn't Christmas or Easter, or even St Paddy's Day... but Ash Wednesday, when no less than 60,000 penitents pour through its doors. They come from all backgrounds -- CEOs and housecleaners, teachers and technicians, Anglo, Latino, Asian, African... even Hindu, Jewish, Jain and Evangelical. Along these lines, it's been said that, for all the grief and pain of these last years, anyone -- anyone -- who doesn't have a bit of burnt palm on their forehead in the city that day gets looked at funny.
That same sense of identity showed itself last night. But this time, it wasn't Lent they were claiming... but Easter. The New Pentecost. Indeed, their energy, their desire seemed to say that the light-bulb would never suffice and the moment had come to bring the Fire back to the heart of the church in the very midst of this "capital of the world."
(Burn, baby, burn.)
Seeing that felt so good, words still can't describe it. And long after they left, something hung in the air that hadn't in a good while, and never before in my memory. (To back this up, even my cousin on the Upper West Side said she could feel something stirring in the city that day which she couldn't exactly pinpoint.)
It might be a bit presumptuous to immediately say "the Holy Spirit," but whatever it was, it was something.
Earlier tonight, I was sitting with a senior official as we compared notes from the last few days. And we both agreed that, for all the concerns, difficulties, delays and what seemed like debacles in the planning and run-up, not only has every expectation of these days been exceeded, but that this experience was "just what we needed." All of us. And hopefully not a few of you who haven't been so blessed and lucky to be here have felt a bit of that over these days, this moment of grace.
Providentially enough, I was sitting by a fountain when that prayer-card came my way. Quoting from B16, its message read thus:
Holy Mary, Mother of GodLord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth... of this earth... of this church!
you have given the world its true light,
Jesus, your Son -- the Son of God.
You abandoned yourself completely
to God's call and thus became a wellspring
of the goodness which flows forth from him.
Show us Jesus. Lead us to him.
Teach us to know and love him,
so that we too can become
capable of true love
and be fountains of living water
in the midst of a thirsting world.
"May tongues of fire, combining burning love of God and neighbor with zeal for the spread of Christ’s Kingdom, descend on all present!"
These have been amazing days, friends, and in that moment by the fountain it became clear that, as in a miracle, the tide had, at long last, begun to turn.
His own energy-level at an apex unequaled over his three-year reign, Papa Ratzi might be heading home tonight... but, church, our work is just beginning.
It's been said before but bears repeating: "the Holy Spirit is ready -- but the answer depends on us."
It's the call of our time, and the work of renewal is already underway in our midst. But it can only happen if each of us go "all in."
Gratefully, it's not a question of programs, budgets, committees or technologies. All it takes is just one word -- YES.
It's time, gang -- our time.
All in, all together, let's get to it.
PHOTO: New York Post(1); AFP/Getty(2)