HBy Sean Maleady ’17 and Sean O’Connor ’16
Harry Connick Jr. had just left the stage as the anticipation built inside the World’s Most Famous Arena, Madison Square Garden. The building had witnessed countless iconic moments since its opening, but few of them were comparable to the visit of His Holiness, Pope Francis.
Papa Francesco, as he was referred to by Cardinal Dolan, had just completed his motorcade tour of Central Park and headed to the Garden in his modest little Fiat. The atmosphere was electric as the jubilant faithful were about to erupt upon sight of the 78-year-old Pope Francis. Conflicting emotions of relief, nervousness, calmness, and excitement built with every second as the attendees waited on line and in their seats. Without a grand entrance or announcement of any kind, Pope Francis humbly entered the floor in a white golf cart to greet the congregation.
Hours earlier, shortly before the students departed from Chaminade, Bro. Thomas Cleary S.M. ’81 reminded them that “the first shall be last, and the last, first.” That rang true especially for Paul Gomez ’16, Sean Maleady ’17, Matt Meade ’17, and Clark Newby ’17, who had been on the waiting list for the “50 Flyers to Philly” trip. But their initial disappointment turned into the opportunity of a lifetime. Along with Mr. Joseph Amorizzo ’07 and Mr. Matthew Chicavich ‘98, they got the chance to make a pilgrimage to Madison Square Garden to watch Pope Francis celebrate Mass. Close to 100,000 people applied to attend the special event, and a little over one-fifth of them were awarded tickets through a lottery. Not only did these Flyers win it, but they hit the jackpot as they had seats on the floor, in Section A, only twenty rows away from His Holiness.
At 12 o’clock, the four Chaminade students and two teachers left Mineola on their journey. The Flyers arrived in the city, and around 1:00 p.m. they got in line to enter the Garden. Scores of people with tickets, anxious to see the Pope, stretched down the New York City streets for nearly half a mile. It was a lengthy, uncomfortable wait thanks to the scorching heat of the city and the slow, tedious pace at which the line moved, but it was definitely worth it.
Instead of just buying drinks for themselves, the group had an idea. The students bought five cases of water and proceeded to walk down the line distributing them. People were thankful and surprised by this small act of kindness. Some even made gracious donations to keep the process going. After distributing water bottles to families, religious, the disabled, crossing guards and policemen alike, the Flyers reentered the line and kept up their slow advancement toward their destination.
The students saw many familiar faces along the way, including recent graduates Dennis Gannon ’15 and Jon Pham ’15, both of whom have entered into the seminary. Mr. Chicavich saw hundreds of people he knew from Catholic events, and many in the group saw relatives and friends.
Finally, after four hours of standing in line, the Flyers arrived at the Garden. Security was very strict to protect His Holiness from any danger or threats. After going through nearly every imaginable form of security, from metal scanners to pat-downs, the group entered the arena. The atmosphere resembled the electricity of one of the countless playoff games the Garden has hosted, and so many in attendance were anticipating greatness.
Upon arriving onto the floor, the Flyers viewed the altar setup on the stage. There was a simple crucifix, white carpeting, and a modest chair for the Pope built by charity workers. Pre-Mass performances included musical stars Gloria Estefan, Kelli O’Hara, Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Hudson and other musicians who performed religious songs before Pope Francis arrived. After the concert, there was a brief pause in the action, but that did not last long, as the Pope soon arrived, unannounced, riding in a golf cart with Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
Pope Francis circled the ground floor, drawing larger than life cheers as he was giving blessings to the crowd. All of the members of the Chaminade group were very close to the action, barely 20 feet away from His Holiness. Paul Gomez ’16 was deeply moved when Pope Francis took a moment at the row behind them to bless a young disabled child who was suffering from serious ailments. Blessing him and his teddy bear, Pope Francis made many members of the crowd tear up. Later that night on Channel 7 ABC’s Eyewitness News, Paul said, “The atmosphere was real. I’m not usually an emotional guy, but I started tearing up when Pope Francis blessed this young child who had a disease sitting near us.”
After energizing the crowd and touching the lives of all, Pope Francis was ready to start Mass. A joyous hymn welcomed His Holiness to the altar, as he opened the Mass after blessing the altar with incense. As soon as the Pope said a word, the massive gathering grew silent in reverence. The responses to the prayers and songs sounded as if they were coming from the voices of a million people. After the readings and an Alleluia, it was time for the Gospel. A priest sang it, and was subsequently followed by Pope Francis delivering the homily in his native language of Spanish. Every word was cherished by the crowd, and for those not fluent in Spanish, there were English subtitles on the video boards around the arena.
“God lives in our cities. The church lives in our cities,” said Pope Francis, drawing one of the many Earth-shattering rounds of applause that was given in the Garden that day. “The city that works and walks in smog has seen a great light,” he said, bringing smiles and laughter out of the congregation.
The Pope stressed equality saying, “In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath the rapid pace of change, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no right to be there, no right to be part of the city… They are the foreigners, their children who go without school, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, and the forgotten elderly. Embrace them and go out and show that God is in your midst, knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that He is vitally a part of the lives of His people, that He is involved with us in a vast history of salvation, and fills us with hope.”
At communion, Pope Francis was the first to raise a cup in the Garden since the New York Rangers in 1994
Next was the prayer of the faithful. To represent the unity of the Catholic Church, each intercession was said in a different language. Following that was a Liturgy of the Eucharistic unlike any other. For the entirety of it, the congregation stood and participated with spirit. At communion, Pope Francis was the first to raise a cup in the Garden since the New York Rangers in 1994, and before that Pope Saint John Paul II in 1979. His Holiness led the world in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
The Pope introduced the kiss of peace, and then waved to everyone in the crowd. Pope Francis finished blessing the bread and wine, and the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ was center stage at one of the biggest events in the recent memory. Hundreds of Eucharistic Ministers delivered Communion to the crowd. For many people, after receiving Communion, the experience was surreal. “It was, by far, the coolest Mass or event that I have ever attended,” said Clark Newby ’17.
Once Communion ended, Cardinal Timothy Dolan delivered words of welcome and gratitude to His Holiness. He greeted Pope Francis, calling him “Papa Francesco, ” saying, “We pray for you at every Mass, and here you are.” This drew a thunderous roar of applause, cheering, and a New York-style standing ovation that went on for what seemed like hours. Even the Pope was in a trance and could not stop showing his contagious smile.
Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, continued, “It is so dazzlingly evident this evening that the church is our family, and you Holy Father, thanks for visiting us, your family.” He then presented the Pope with a golden chalice. The rafters holding the championship banners shook with the reaction from the congregation. Papa Francesco’s smile spread throughout the crowd and the world. After giving the Concluding Rite, Pope Francis asked the congregation at MSG and around the world one simple favor: “Please don’t forget to pray for me.” This started another deafening ovation.
On his way out, the Pope marched down the center aisle and passed by where the Flyers were sitting. He waved to them and others in attendance, then made his way out of the Garden. There was a heavenly feeling left in the room as the Holy Father walked out. It was an experience of a lifetime for the Flyers, and a memory that will last forever.