It was a beautiful day. And, it wasn’t June, when according to
the poet, comes perfect days. It was Friday, April 18, 2008, which will
forever be inscribed on the pages of history as the day Pope Benedict
XVI came to New York. The sun was shining, but decided, perhaps in deference
to the Pope, the faithful would say, to let a gentle coolness share
His day was full – the UN where he spoke of peace, the East Central
Synagogue in Manhattan where he spoke of reconciliation. In the evening,
he visited St Joseph’s Church for an ecumenical service where
he spoke of unity. Throughout the day, and in fact throughout his visit,
starting in Washington, DC, the theme had been Hope. Bishop Martin,
black Archbishop of Atlanta, GA, in a TV interview said, “Our
world is in desperate need of hope. Of all the virtue our world needs
today, Hope ranks at the top of the list.” But before the Pope
ever departed the Vatican, he had set forth his reason for his visit
to the two cities, Washington and New York. He said, “Together
with your Bishops, I have chosen as the theme of my journey three simple
but essential words: “Christ Our Hope.” Following in the
footsteps of my venerable predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, I
shall come to United States of America as Pope for the first time, to
proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of
every language, race, culture and social condition. Yes, Christ is the
face of God present among us. Through him, our lives reach fullness,
and together, both as individuals and peoples, we can become a family
united by fraternal love, according to the eternal plan of God the Father.”
We were told to arrive at 4pm for the 6pm event. My driver was, I came
to believe, was practicing for the Indy 500. A line was already formed
at the table where names of invited guest were recorded and identification
had to be presented. (Even black clergy were on line and others were
hastening to get on the line. It was a miracle for which the Pope will
not get credit. But we, who know, know what happened). On the corner
of 87th Street from York Avenue to 1st Avenue was completely cordoned
off by police of every size, color and rank. The people solitary and
clustered in groups were present wherever there was space. I was approached
to sell my ticket and to name my price. It was tempting, but I reasoned
I will always have money but I may never get a chance to be in a worship
service with this Pope.
Without checking the book, the receptionist recognized me. Still I had
to show my ID. “Government rules, you know,” said the officer
at the table. As I walked along 87th Street to the church, escorted
by a very friendly Euro-ethnic young lady, I was greeted with waves,
nods and smiles. Inside the cafeteria/auditorium, where we would eat
later, (for now, only small cookies and water) we passed through another
checkpoint. For those who wanted to go straight to the church, a walkway
connected the two buildings. You could see 87th Street and the horde
of press people. Entering in, what by Catholic standard, the small church,
eggshell-white walls, trimmed in gray, stain glasses, station of the
Cross, chiseled in marble on the wall, about 100 clergy had already
At 5:15pm, there was heavy anticipation. You could cut it with the proverbial
knife. At 5:17, a Bishop stepped to the podium to the left of us in
front of the gold and brown trimmed altar and symbols. Briefly he welcomed
us. All during the wait, the choir seated in the loft serenaded us with
music. They were all white and middle to old age.
From 5:25 to 5:43, there was a presentation on the history of Ecumenism.
Then came the introduction of the special guests by a different Bishop.
At 5:45, the choir sang: “I Will Praise Thee Oh Lord.” The
music stopped. There was a long pause. All eyes turned toward the back
of the church – back to the huge opened doors. Although we were
bound inside, by the yells of the crowd, we knew that something special
was happening on the outside. Inside there was laughter, more like giggling
comparable to grammar schoolboys.
At 5:50, he entered with his entourage. He arrived at the beige-felt
chair, trimmed in gold. At 5:53, he greeted us in English. From 5:54
to 5:58, there was a welcome to the Pope and a gift from the church.
A woman, yes a woman, read the scripture. Now it was time for the Pope
to speak. Two Bishops and two Priests stepped forward handed the Pope
his glasses, manuscript and arranged his mike. And the other orchestrated
the preparation. The four attendants returned to their seat. Although,
I was in the 4th row in the middle section of the church, I couldn’t
hear what the Pope was saying. His voice was soft and low. He whispered
with an accent. So, I gave up trying to listen. I decided to study the
players and the drama and remember that these were mortals not gods.
My attention was riveted on the facial expression and body motion. The
Pope’s face seldom changed. The two Bishops who set on either
side starred straight ahead, occasionally batting their eyes –
no feelings, no change of expression. I wondered how many hours they
must have practiced this immobility, or, they had been doing it so long
until it became natural. I wondered, what stress and strain these men
were under. They know that billions of eyes are fastened upon them.
The smallest movement, or absence of motion or a wave of the hand, countless
people will try to interpret the motion and books will be written.
Observing this Pope, I was compelled to make a comparison with John
Paul II. The cherub visage of John Paul was replaced with a stern almost
frozen appearance of Benedict XVI. But there was kindness in both faces,
but Pope John had it more. Their bodies differed. Pope John was bent.
Pope Benedict was straight with just a slight bending of the shoulders.
Pope John trembled. Pope Benedict was steady. His hands never quivered
as he held the paper from which he read his speech. Pope John Paul was
grandfatherly. Pope Benedict was professorial. When I studied Pope Benedict
XVI, I thought of other German scholars. Kant, Hagel, Schopenhauer,
and Fuerback and German theologians. Benedict XVI looks every bit the
scholar that he is.
He never looked up from his speech – never deviated, never changed
expression. At 6:16, he was finished. He had been speaking about 12
minutes. He received a 30 second ovation – more for him than what
he said. The attendants returned, took away his glasses, manuscript
and mike. There was an uncomfortable pause; eyes began to search to
determine what to do next. Then the choir sang. After special guests’
introductions to the Pope accomplished by Cardinal Egan, the guests
stepped forward and shook hands with the standing Pope.
6:26 it was over. With his entourage following, the Pope headed up the
aisle and through the door. 6:32 he was gone to resume history in the
cool of the evening as crowds screamed their adoration.
The rest of us, returned to the dining area, where a buffet of chicken,
fish, pasta, tossed salad and bread was displayed. Of all the pomp and
circumstance of the Pope’s visit to the USA, there were two acts
that impressed me most.
His meetings with victims of sexual abuse by Priests. Here I believe
he showed his compassion and his courage. Not once, but on several occasions
he addressed the issue. Surely, there must have been those around him
who were urging him not to get involved with the issue. Yet, repeatedly,
he addressed the abuse.
His visit to St. Joseph’s Church. There was a question that baffled
the clergy that was assembled and perhaps other people. Why had he chosen
St. Joseph’s? It is probably one of the smaller churches. It is
unknown. It is out of the way. When I inquired, I learned that it is
the oldest German Parrish, and the only German speaking Parrish in the
Archdiocese of New York. I was impressed because the Pope being German
wanted to connect with his roots. Being of African origin, I know the
continuing attempt by too many of my kindred to escape from their history.
So, I admire people who honor their origin.
It was an interesting experience being in worship with Pope Benedict
XVI, but it does not compare, not in the least, with my meeting with
Pope John Paul II in the Vatican.