I arrived in Manhattan two hours later than I’d anticipated; a severe accident on the interstate in South Carolina made me miss my reserved flight, but I hopped on the next plane to the Big Apple without incident.
The last weekend in September was the one I’d chosen to make my yearly visit to my brother in NYC, and this trip had the added bonus of catching a best friend’s baby shower. It also turned out to be the exact span during which the Pope would visit the city that never sleeps.
Aside from a fleeting thought that I might rustle up tickets somehow when I landed, I didn’t expect to see the Pope. I recall shrugging and saying to myself, “If it’s meant to be, somehow something will work out,” and then ruefully laughing–how does one mistakenly see the head of the Church in a city of more than 8 million in a scant 36 hours?
When I’d dropped my bags and met my brother near the metro, we meandered toward Central Park. We noticed barricades; undeterred, we continued down East 67th, where I marveled at the diversity of the humanity hanging over the rails–Upper East Side moms in yoga pants and diamonds, hostesses and patrons of restaurants alike. It took an embarrassingly long time to realize that such New Yorkers wouldn’t be enthralled with UN traffic, my first guess. These hardened citizens couldn’t be waiting for some regular celebrity sighting. The veil started to slip away: it must be the Pope they’re waiting for.
We joined the throng when we crossed 5th Avenue to the edge of Central Park. With much of 5th Avenue closed to traffic, it was surprisingly quiet; the din of voices filled the air instead of the usual car horns. When police motorcycles started plowing through the empty street, the crowd quieted; we knew the legendary Fiat must not be far behind. First we heard cries–as the motorcade traveled down 67th Street, the public called out in joy as they laid eyes on the Pope. In the midst of a flurry of black Suburbans, the humble Italian car turned the corner and the ubiquitous white-sleeved arm jutted out of the open window.
I hadn’t meant to cry, but tears were truly a visceral response to seeing the Holy Father. My brother was both moved and mystified by my reaction; I’d felt that I’d been in the presence of holiness, rejuvenated for the ministry to which I’d been called. My brother led his verklempt sister back into the East Side for post-papal macarons (he insists this is a thing). I was surprised to have been so fortunate to practically run into the motorcade headed for St. Patrick’s, and I was sated.
On my way to procure more sweets later in the weekend, I struck out early on Saturday morning to visit a favorite Lower East Side haunt. Certain that the UN had begun its occupation, I growled inwardly as I saw more flashing lights blocking walkways between me and the subway (between me and my doughnut, more like).
Of course, dear reader, you know how this story will turn out: on the Pope’s very way out of town, the last possible NYC sighting, I was absolutely barricaded from making progress toward breakfast for the sake of seeing the Pope once again. On this pass, the motorcade moved with more speed and the crowd was much smaller–though no less diverse. Having seen the now-famous photo of the woman fully committing her attention to the experience of seeing Francis instead of grabbing a digital record of the event, I took her lead and put my phone away. I concentrated on the feeling of the moment, I surrendered to my happy fate.
Walking to the subway, I considered the weekend’s unexpected events: the Pope had come upon me while I was simply living out those responsibilities I’d been given–I spent time with my family and the Pope popped by.
Rather than chasing him around Manhattan, or even registering for a free ticket to the Central Park parade, the Pope found me in the mundane. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been witness to this lesson again and again in my life: those thoughtlessly easy, small and faithful things are the places where the most grace and joy are to be found.
Moses wasn’t on a mystical retreat when he encountered the burning bush; God found Moses while he was just tending his sheep, caring for his family, being faithful in his daily life. In a phase of life when I’m awfully concerned with what’s right and true and faithful, frantic for answers and healing, I’m grateful for the reminder God has provided in his servant Francis.