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OpinionCommentaryPope Francis Visit

For Pope Francis, a cathedral full of strivers

New York waits for Pope Francis' arrival on

New York waits for Pope Francis' arrival on Thursday, Sept. 24. Credit: Mark Chiusano

The pope was still in Washington, D.C., but the viewers near St. Patrick's Cathedral were already getting ready.

"I should've brought my walker," said Regina Passos, 89, leaning against a wall just to the side of the line for the metal detectors, getting longer and longer by the minute.  It was 1 p.m. Thursday, and vespers weren't scheduled to start until 6:45 p.m.

Fifth Avenue was almost entirely shut down.

The scene felt almost pre-ordained.  The cops had to be there, just like the office workers on lunch break.  And so, to some extent, did the viewers.  Whether Pope Francis himself or just your run-of-the-mill vicar of Christ, you just don't see the pope outside Uniqlo every day.

"We've seen them all when they come in," said Laura Fernandes, 59, of Westchester.  Ticking them off: "Benedict in an airplane hangar . . ."

"He's as close as we can get to God," said Maria Maldonado, 63, waiting in the shade.

Not that New York City shifts itself entirely.  I watched Jacqueline Gomes offer flyer after flyer for Fifth Avenue Men's Suits (50%-80% off) equally unsuccessfully to quick-marching passerby and starry-eyed pope watchers.  But when asked about the pope, she brightened.  Would she see Francis, after she finished working?

"Espero," she said. I hope. And then she grinned.

Then she pointed at the traffic light nearby, and mimed climbing to the top.  By the time she was done working, it might be necessary.  

Way down Fifth Avenue on 47th Street, still in sight of the cathedral but strangely vacant, in the last stretch of barricaded ground, former priest and ever-present activist Robert Hoatson set up signs advocating for victims of the church's sex abuse scandals.  Hoatson said he had been moved to come out in response to what he viewed as Francis' insufficient comments to American bishops on Wednesday. "We thought he was different," he said.

Hoatson didn't think the pope would actually see him or his signs. "The NYPD said you can protest between 47th and 48th.  When Benedict was here, they put us in the same spot."

I found myself agreeing with Hoatson, at least about the pleasant multiple interpretations of the pope's words -- in his speech earlier Thursday before Congress, before almost anyone at all had arrived outside St. Patrick's Cathedral, Francis' comment about human life (which seemed to be a nod to abortion) jumped immediately to the death penalty.  He returned again and again with loaded emphasis on "families."  Difficult to be pinned down by one earthly political side or the other; the rhetorical corollary of his impish grin.

Like the word at the heart of the Catholic faith, gospel - which can be read in countless ways, their meaning as elusive as happiness, faith, or the almighty.  Still, one of my favorite of Francis' lines Thursday morning was his benediction of those strivers who  "in their own quiet way sustain the life of society."

By midday they were already at St. Patrick's for Francis, waiting for a glimpse.

Mark Chiusano is an editorial writer for amNew York.