Media check-in time to see Pope Francis play Madison Square Garden was 11 a.m. on September 25, seven and a half hours before His Holiness was scheduled to process beneath the Jumbotron. Seven and a half hours is, in my opinion, too long to wait for anyone, even the Vicar of Jesus Christ, but the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Secret Service took a firm position to the contrary, so I left home a little after breakfast.
The Conference of Bishop’s press operation had claimed two floors at a Times Square hotel. Their Wi-Fi network was named “habemus papam,” which I guess is Catholic humor.
I had wondered what to wear to a Papal Mass at the Garden: The Mass aspect seemed to call for a suit and tie; the Garden aspect seemed to call for a Rangers jersey. Going as a reporter scrambled the whole thing, so I settled for my William F. Buckley best — khakis and sweaty boat shoes.
The rest of the press corps seemed not to have worried so much, and stuck with the customary attire of their media sub-clan: photographers in safari gear, print journalists in plaid, and smart suits and makeup for the on-air TV correspondents.
The press was milling in front of the desks where Conference of Bishops staffers prepared to hand out badges called “underlays” — laminated cards that complement your press credentials like passing the bar exam complements a law degree. The pope, meanwhile, was speaking from the floor of the United Nations, the first of his appearances that day. The Mass at the Garden would be the fourth.
It seemed a shame that, of all the halls and stadiums in New York City, His Holiness had picked the Garden. That Madison Square Garden is a despicable blight is perhaps the most widely held architectural opinion in the five boroughs, matched only by the notion that the new Freedom Tower looks more like a fire hydrant than a skyscraper should. I wait gleefully for that day in 2023 when the Garden’s lease expires, and the city is freed to wreak brutal aesthetic retribution on the brown wastebasket of an arena, blasting it off the roof of Penn Station and burning away the poison fog of misery it exudes into Herald Square.
The notion that a 19,000-person religious service, fronted by the Supreme Pontiff of the church that produced the Sistine Chapel and the Sagrada Familia, should be held at the Garden was a little depressing. That’s not to say that pleasant things don’t happen at the Garden: I’ve seen the Knicks play there, even seen the Knicks win there — though it’s been a while. I saw Roger Waters do all of “Dark Side” there in 2007, which was fun, both for me and for the middle-aged dudes snorting something a couple of seats over. Still, a post-Pink Floyd “Dark Side,” with a flying inflatable pig and a few tracks from “The Wall” for old times’ sake, seems to call for a different sort of atmosphere than a holy ritual culminating in the consumption of the body of Christ.
Francis isn’t the first Successor of the Prince of the Apostles to appear at the Garden: John Paul II held an event there in 1979. When John Paul returned to New York in 1995, wiser, perhaps, after his first visit, he celebrated Mass at Aqueduct Racetrack and in Central Park instead; Benedict XVI, during his 2008 trip, held Mass at Yankee Stadium. All nicer spots than the Garden, in their way, but all still a far cry from, say, St. Peter’s Basilica.
Part of the problem, for me, was my utter lack of context for such a large-scale religious event. I wondered if it would be like the Hasidic gatherings I used to visit with Yiddish-speaking Forward colleagues on Purim, with blaring speakers and hundreds of men packed into bleachers in big Boro Park synagogues, bouncing in time to their rebbe’s hand gestures; or maybe like the ultra-Orthodox anti-Internet rally I covered at Citi Field in 2012, where they covered up an advertisement for Cholula Hot Sauce because it contained a drawing of a woman.
It seemed, in the days before the pope’s arrival, as if the whole city was anxiously wondering the same thing. For weeks my email inbox had been full of warnings about papal traffic, and press releases piggybacking off the papal visit (Actual subject line: “76% of People 50-Plus Pleased With Pope”). While on a lunchtime stroll a few hours before the Servant of the Servants of God’s American Airlines Boeing 777-200 landed at JFK, I passed a table outside a 7-Eleven stacked with $19.99 pope dolls.
The price tag on the pope’s visit to New York is as-yet undisclosed, so the dolls offered an opportunity for some back-of-the-envelope digressions: How many pope dolls does it cost to seal off Central Park for a day? Enough to blanket the Great Lawn? (Probably not: The Great Lawn is 55 acres, or something like 2.4 million square feet; those pope dolls were like 10 inches tall and, say, 4 inches wide, so let’s budget three of them per square foot; at $19.99 each, 7.2 million pope dolls would run you $144 million, which, even with a bulk discount, is a bit high for just fencing off Central Park, but might be in the general ballpark for the trip to the United States as a whole, as one estimate has the Philly leg alone costing nearly $50 million.)
At the press center, all thoughts of cost were displaced by an overweening anxiety about security. There were lots of rules: Ride the bus the 10 blocks from the hotel to the Garden or you won’t get in. No wandering at the Garden, no “meandering,” no getting food on your own. And: “You’re going to have to come to us when you need to use the bathroom.” At around 11:30 I realized this meant that I would need to secure a sandwich or two to tide me over until the Mass was through. It was only half an hour before the loading of the buses, and I felt like I was in an elementary school anxiety dream, rushing to get lunch before the class left without me. Things were already feeling dire. It was still a good seven hours until Mass.
The bus, an Omega Express coach, carried us through a militarized Midtown. It was the sort of day when you get cops in starched uniforms who look like they haven’t been on the street since the marathon last November. Outside the Garden, photographers had to relinquish their stuffed backpacks, each with telescoping monopod strapped to the side. Big dogs sniffed and security agents unzipped, manhandling expensive-looking lenses.
The security line dragged on before finally depositing us into the concrete bowels of the stadium, that liminal zone where Madison Square Garden and Penn Station meet. We rode the escalators up and up and up, emerging on high where the nosebleeds get nosebleeds, on a beam with seats that dangle in the air near the stadium’s bowed ceiling, not far from the banners bearing the retired numbers of Patrick Ewing and Walt Frazier and their brethren.
I visited the concession stand. Water cost $5.50. Long hours yawned before me, and I tweeted anxiously. The public address system announced that “special commemorative papal merchandise” was available for purchase. The selection was slim: mostly $25.00 Official PAPAL NYC 2015 Logo Baseball Hats (navy or khaki), $15 Eco Friendly Mini Tote Bags, and Limited Edition Commemorative Rosaries. “All items will be blessed by Pope Francis when he offers his solemn blessing to conclude the Mass,” the PA enthused. Wrestling with the metaphysical logistics of this, I turned to one of the dozens of escorts assigned to us by the Conference of Bishops and asked how that would work. She told me apologetically that she was Jewish, and I never got a good answer.
In order to induce the faithful to show up early, the organizers of the Mass had arranged an introductory concert, a sort of opening act for the Primate of Italy. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the folksy Archbishop of New York who would have made a great Tammany Hall ward boss, introduced the concert in a video message in his folksiest mode, inviting attendees to consider the next five hours (!!!) a “mini-retreat,” and signing off with a promise that we’d see him again soon. “I’ll be the guy in black next to the guy in white,” he said.
A passing 26-year-old novice with an order of nuns called the Sisters of Life told me she thought it would be cool to hear Jennifer Hudson sing. In fact, it was cool: Both because Hudson nearly blew out the speakers with her steam-whistle soprano, and because she did it singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which gave me the Jewish angle I’d been waiting for. (I’m pretty sure that the Archdiocese and Leonard Cohen have very different ideas of what that song is about.) Writing the headline in my head — “The Secret Jewish History of the Pope’s Opener” — I kicked up my boat shoes and relaxed.
Relaxed, at least, until a piano number by Harry Connick Jr., in the midst of which I felt a tap on my shoulder and a woman in a blazer took the seat next to me, introduced herself as a Secret Service agent, and started asking questions about my credentials. She wanted to know where I had gotten them, and I decided she was trying to trap me in an inconsistency before popping an allegation — perhaps of infiltrating, perhaps of tweeting a too-dumb joke about the Jewish angle suggested by the Leonard Cohen song — and so I broke into a sweat, imagining spending the rest of my evening in a dank Madison Square Garden holding cell under interrogation by the guy who brought in Oswald.
Luckily, one of the Conference of Bishops escorts interceded and the agent, who, it turned out, was trying to help some hapless half-credentialed reporter, let me be. Even more luckily, the opening concert was over. As it ended, the rows of priests in the section behind the stage rose to change from their black garments into the white vestments they would wear for Mass, and a sea of black transformed into a checkerboard, and then a sea of white.
When Francis rolled onto the floor of the arena in a white golf cart just after 5:45 p.m., the crowd wasn’t ready for him. No announcement heralded his entry; no camera streamed his image onto the Jumbotron. It was just a man in white on a golf cart circling the floor of Madison Square Garden briefly, stopping to kiss a child’s head, being greeted by ecstatic applause as he turned each corner. And then he was gone again, and we went back to waiting, this time for the Mass to begin.
In the moments after the golf car disappeared, a glowing Governor Andrew Cuomo visited the press’s rafter for a brief availability. “This is one of the great moments New York has experienced,” Cuomo said. The pope had said a special blessing for Cuomo’s girlfriend, Sandra Lee, who is fighting cancer, and for his father, former governor Mario Cuomo, who died in January. “It’s really given me a sense of peace I haven’t had in months,” said the governor, who is Catholic.
Soon Francis reappeared on the arena floor cloaked in green, and the Mass began. From so high in the air it was hard to sense the feeling of the room, though it seemed from where I sat that every single member of the audience was taking a picture at once. Still, as the smoke from the pope’s censer wafted up to us at the ceiling, the arena felt at least a bit transformed. The pope’s English seemed more labored as he read from the liturgy than it had the previous day, when he spoke to Congress. The Holy Father seemed tired, which was fair enough. Yet when he launched into his homily, delivered in Spanish, the energy returned, and the crowd listened silently as he spoke of God’s presence even in the midst of the filthy city.
“Living in a big city is not always easy,” the pope said. He spoke of the “smog,” and of those trampled by the city — “foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly.” And he talked about the grace that exists despite the challenges and the ugliness. “Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope,” the pope said. “A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city.”
When the pope finished, there was a moment of silence, and the Jumbotron showed only the golden cross hanging behind the stage. All I could hear was the HVAC system humming in the ceiling just a dozen feet over my head. The pope sat in his chair, his head bowed.
Later, after the pope had taken the wafer into his mouth, priests filed through the Garden, into the isles, down the rows, even into the press area, and the thousands assembled stood in silent lines, waiting to take communion.
As the Mass came to a close, Cardinal Dolan stood to thank the pope. The applause carried on for a minute and a half, and a small grin sneaked onto the pope’s face. “Viva el Papa!” someone shouted, to more cheers. The pope asked the crowd to pray for him, and he and his retinue processed back up the aisle and out of one of the floor-level exits you’ve seen the Knicks use 1,000 times.
Down below in the priests’ section, the sea of white turned black again, as they stripped their vestments and packed them away.
On the way out, I saw the young Sister of Life novice fly past with a huge squad of fellow Sisters. I asked what she’d thought, and she flashed me a thumbs-up. “It was awesome,” she said. “It was a huge gift to my heart.”
I had liked the general gist of what the pope said about God’s presence in the smog. Maybe I’d been too cynical about the Garden, about Herald Square, about the ugly city. Then I stepped outside, and there was a guy selling hats, and a street preacher saying the same line over and over about reading the Bible instead of getting high, and a huge phalanx of cops, and Sixth Avenue smelled awful, and Herald Square gave me that miserable Herald Square feeling, and I knew with prophetic certainty that Madison Square Garden would figure out some fiendish way to extend its lease for all eternity, and by the time I had swiped my Metro Card, memories of Pope Francis had drifted away like incense in the smog.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.