There I was last Saturday morning covering the annual Forum for Catechesis and Youth Ministry at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx as I have many times before.
One of the side benefits was the beautiful liturgy to begin the day, complete with music and song by the choir from St. Luke’s parish in the Bronx under the direction of Madeline Feliciano.
Retired Auxiliary Bishop Gerald Walsh celebrated the Mass. And in his homily, he harkened back to a scene from exactly 40 years ago that week during St. Pope John Paul II’s first papal visit to the United States.
As Bishop Walsh told the story, the Holy Father, then in the second year of a pontificate that would stretch all the way until his death in 2005, was in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan.
Amazingly, I heard about the anniversary a few days earlier when it was mentioned in CNY’s Twitter feed, and I thought it might make for a good column. Then Bishop Walsh dropped it right into my lap, as it were.
The bishop went on to say that Pope John Paul II, then 59, speaking to the rainy-day crowd in Battery Park, used a rhetorical flourish to make a much larger point, asking his listeners simply, “Isn’t this a beautiful city?”
“Yes, it is a beautiful city, but only if the people who live here take care of one another, only if elderly are respected and given their dignity, only if the young receive good values, good education, only if the sick get the help they need and the homeless are cared for,” said Bishop Walsh, quoting the pope’s deeper meaning.
Come to think of it, those sentiments of Pope John Paul II would sound just about right coming from the mouth of Pope Francis today.
To bring the point full circle, the bishop told the 600 catechists and youth ministers gathered before him: “To be beautiful, a city needs a soul. You are the soul of the city by the way you live your life, by the way you share your talents, by the example you give and by the teaching you leave for the people and their families.”
There were many special moments during the visit’s New York leg, which included Mass at Yankee Stadium and an address at Shea Stadium, a youth rally in Madison Square Garden, an address to the United Nations, a prayer service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and visits to the faithful in Harlem and the South Bronx. It was Page One, top of the fold, news in the New York Times, as it very well should have been.
Of course that trip to the United States was a personal introduction to the Polish pope who would electrify and evangelize both the Church and the world many times over during the next two and a half decades. But the first time you meet someone is always special, and Pope John Paul II made it unforgettable.
Our files contain a booklet about that visit published by Our Sunday Visitor. What a whirlwind it was, and not just here in New York. Just look at this seven-day itinerary: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Des Moines, Iowa, Chicago and Washington, D.C., to top it all off. He didn’t cover the entire country, but I have a feeling if he had three or four more days, he just might have.
It’s hard to imagine an extended visit like that these days, but that was John Paul II, always looking forward, especially in his younger years, with a sense of the dramatic honed during his early years as a playwright and actor and, of course, a Churchman’s penchant for reaching souls.
I was a high school student when the new pope came to New York the first time, so I don’t have as clear a picture in my mind as Bishop Walsh, then a young priest serving at Holy Trinity parish in Manhattan. Later this week, we’ll try to post the pertinent section of the bishop’s homily in an audio file on our website. Trust me, it’s worth a listen.