Pope Francis’s first pastoral visit to the United States one year ago in September 2015 opened with a visit to Washington, D.C., and then it was on to New York City, where he became the fourth pontiff to address the United Nations and prayed silently at the 9/11 Memorial before joining an interreligious meeting there.
During his Sept. 24-26 visit to New York, the pope also met with children and immigrant families at a Catholic school in East Harlem, celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden, rode in the popemobile through Central Park, and prayed at a vespers service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with priests and men and women religious.
In an email interview, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan reflected on the unforgettable memories and enduring impact of Pope Francis’s visit to that city.
Crux: One year later, what memories do you find most inspiring of Pope Francis’s visit to New York?
Dolan: Even after a year, it’s hard to believe the tremendous impact that Pope Francis had during his time in New York. Although he was only with us for about 38 hours, his visit was so jam-packed, and so moving, that it feels like he was here for a week!
When I reflect on his visit, there are moments that stand out for me:
- Riding down 5th Avenue in the popemobile on Thursday evening, and seeing the look of surprise and appreciation on the Holy Father’s face as he realized that our beautifully restored Saint Patrick’s Cathedral was not in a remote or isolated part of the city, but right in the very heart of it.
- The special “shout-out” to women religious at the end of vespers, when he expressed the love and appreciation that we have for all that they did, and continue to do, to build up the Church in the United States.
- His powerful remarks to the United Nations, with his call for peace, respect for the environment, and care for the poor.
- The moving, solemn visit to the 9/11 Memorial and members of the “9/11 community” and the multi-faith gathering that followed.
- The rollicking, exuberant, deafening, ride through Central Park, where the people of New York had the opportunity to express their love for the pope.
- The reverent, joyful, celebration of the Mass in Madison Square Garden. Nothing can be more important than having the Bishop of Rome here to offer our greatest prayer, together with 20,000 of the faithful.
- The helicopter trip to the airport on Saturday morning, during which the Holy Father asked the pilot to please take us past the Statue of Liberty, so that he could see for himself the world’s most famous symbol of welcoming the stranger.
However, as magnificent as all of these events were, I believe that the one that Pope Francis appreciated most was the visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem. We actually had two events at that location, a visit with schoolchildren, since the pope had expressed an interest in our Catholic schools, and a Catholic Charities event where he met with individuals and families helped by our immigration services.
It was at Queen of Angels that the pope had his most direct interaction with the people of New York. When he stepped out of the Fiat on East 112th Street, there were about 200 students from various schools waiting to greet him.
We thought that he might walk over to say hello, give a little wave, and then head inside the school. Instead, he walked up and down the entire line of children, taking selfies, shaking hands, all the while smiling broadly, re-energized by the love and affection of these young people.
That carried over into the classroom, where he met with third and fourth grade students, and then into the gym, packed with immigrants who shared their stories of being welcomed by the Church and finding a new home in New York.
I think that this is where Pope Francis truly experienced what the Church in New York is all about.
Which of his words or messages from his visit to New York do you think especially continues to resonate?
People still come up to me to talk about how wonderful it was to have the pope here with us. I think they sense, as I do, that maybe he was more than a little surprised by the tremendous outpouring of love and solidarity that he received here.
Since it was his first time in New York, I suspect he had the impression that New York was a cold, impersonal metropolis, with people concerned only about making a buck, and who had no need for God and faith.
I can sympathize, because, as a Midwesterner, many of my well-meaning friends warned me about this very thing when I was appointed archbishop of New York in 2009! Instead, he found, as I did, a people of deep faith, who were ready to embrace him and listen closely to what he had to say.
I’m not sure if you asked people that they would be able to quote a line from any of the pope’s talks or homilies. However, I think that just about everyone would remember his essential message, one that he demonstrates by his own life each day: the Church is here to serve, to welcome, to be the instrument of God’s mercy and love, and to embrace all who seek her.
In the year since, what impact did his visit have on New York, and what do you hope will be the enduring impact of his visit there for the future?
I think that his impact will continue to be felt for a long time. It might be difficult to point to tangible results.
Yes, our priests reported that our “Reconciliation Mondays” this past Advent and Lent had larger numbers of people seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation, many of whom reported being inspired by the pope’s message of mercy. Also, these past two years I’ve had much larger than normal ordination classes, with young men inspired by Pope Benedict’s visit in 2008 to answer the call to the priesthood, so I am hoping for a similar “rise” four to five years from now.
But, mostly, I think that it is the attitude that Pope Francis helped instill in our people, to love and care for others, to welcome rather than judge harshly, to find ways to be healers and instruments of God’s mercy; that’s the impact that the pope had on me, and, from what I’ve seen, on my fellow Catholics as well.