Richard McLachlan: El Papa comes to New York

September 29, 2015 2:53 am

 

Pope Francis rides the popemobile in ’s Central Park. AP photo / Richard Drew

There is a New York Police Department officer every 20 paces
facing the crowd of 80,000 excited New Yorkers lining the 66th Street
Transverse through Central Park. They have to stand on the one spot for
four or five hours just watching .
Despite the recent bad press over an unduly vigorous false arrest of a prominent tennis star of color, they’re smiling and taking cellphone pictures on request. The atmosphere is totally friendly, even joyous.
The
crowd has been segmented, our very nice young officer tells us, into
zones. “Actually, he says with a wry and slightly embarrassed smile, “we
call them pens.” Access to Central Park just to watch the Pontiff drive
by in the Popemobile, involved winning free tickets in a lottery, then
waiting in a packed crowd of tens of thousands filling many blocks of
Central Park West, passing through rows of airport scanners, undergoing a
full bag search, and then being counted into our respective ‘pens’ to
wait for El Papa’s drive-by.

Most of the people in our pen seem to be Hispanic. Across
the road a family has draped a banner across the galvanized railings
telling the Pope in Spanish, “Monsenor, we pray for you always.” I see
medallions and other holy objects in people’s hands and real excitement
and joy at the prospect of seeing him. There is not a trace of ill humor
or impatience in the jubilant crowd standing at least 15 deep against
the barrier fences.
The previous day the Pope, who seems to have a
clear grasp of Washington’s constipated political gestalt, had
admonished Congress on immigration, racial injustice, and poverty. He
made an explicit plea for respect for life throughout all its stages –
including the abolition of the death penalty – a move that visibly
dampened the spirits of an excited pro-life audience and reduced the
enthusiastic room-wide applause to a mere smattering. John Boehner, the
most powerful Republican and a devout Catholic, who wept openly as the
Pope spoke, immediately ceased clapping at the Holy Father’s misplaced
even-handedness about the sanctity of life.
The following day
John Boehner announced his resignation – to the poorly suppressed
jubilation of the party’s right flank. In doing so he averted an earlier
threat by that same group of Republicans to shut down the Government in
an attempt to force an end to the over $US500 million in Federal
funding going to Planned Parenthood, an organisation that stands
(wrongly) accused of illegally selling fetal tissue for research
purposes. The Pope’s visit, Boehner’s public displays of emotion, his
resignation, and the pro-life/anti- Planned Parenthood/anti-death
penalty nexus, has all provided an exhilarating sense of synchronicity
to events. This despite Boehner’s claims there is no relationship
between Francis’ visit and his departure from Congress.

A cardboard cutout of Pope Francis is visible over the crowd waiting to watch a papal procession in New York. AP photo / Adam Hunger
A cardboard cutout of Pope Francis is
visible over the crowd waiting to watch a papal procession in New York.
AP photo / Adam Hunger
On Friday morning the Pope, who appears almost
entirely devoid of platitudes, delivered a serious address to the United
Nations on human rights, inequality, and planetary destruction. His
speech was more like the UN’s riding instructions from on high than the
more customary words of encouragement.
The rest of his day
involved a trip to the extraordinary Maya Linn memorial and museum at
ground zero, a visit to an East Harlem school, and the drive through
Central Park, culminating in a mass with 20,000 at Madison Square
Gardens. Somewhere among all that, the Pontiff ate lunch.
The
security attending the drive through Central Park was extraordinary.
Along with a massive NYPD presence and the uniformly muscular K9 Secret
Service police (all wearing standard issue dark glasses), there were
inordinately large numbers of men in too-tight dark suits with
earpieces. Then shortly after our friendly officer’s walkie-talkie
announced ‘arrival imminent’, many more black SUVs drove by, followed by
twin lines of police on Harley Davidson motorbikes with all lights
flashing, more SUVs with men-in-suits-and-dark-glasses standing in their
open doors, a truck full of police with machine gun carrying men in
fatigues inside, and then finally more men in suits running ahead of the
Popemobile.

Crowds of people stand behind a police barricade as they await the arrival of Pope Francis. AP Photo / Richard Drew
Crowds of people stand behind a police barricade as they await the arrival of Pope Francis. AP Photo / Richard Drew
It was as though a fresh concept has just now taken
form – a newly acknowledged President-of-the-World, giving instruction
to those at the center of world power in our time of need. And the
response most easily to hand? One of the biggest security operations in
US history. Usually the Popemobile drives are open to the general public
with no security checks. While he accepts this rather dissonant display
of surveillance and firepower as part of coming to the USA, the Pope is
not really comfortable with it.
He was in Philadelphia by the
time I was waiting in the subway the following day. A big man with a
walrus mustache was sitting on a bench beside his amplifier, singing Sam
Cooke songs to a backing track. He had a great voice and his singing
created a force field on the platform. Uncharacteristically happy New
Yorkers surrounded him – recording him, flirting with him, and giving
him money.
It was as though El Papa del Mundo had passed through
the city, scattering a mixture of fairy dust and serious moral advice as
he went – and everyone was still basking in the afterglow.

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