The Pope and the City

Pope Benedict will arrive in New York on April 18 to help Catholics here celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of the New York Archdiocese, an important milestone in this city’s history and development. But Benedict has more than celebration on his mind—like so many other people who call themselves New Yorkers, the Pope is coming here to reinvent himself.

It has been three years since Benedict succeeded John Paul II, who reigned for a quarter-century and who visited New York twice during his pontificate. Although many American Catholics feared that the new pope would look to discipline his flock, especially here, rather than emphasize collegiality, Benedict thus far has not been a theological pit bull. His first encyclical was about the importance of love and charity.

If the pontiff is looking to change his image, or at least complicate the way in which the world views him, he has chosen the right venue. New York is all about reinvention, which is why natives of Iowa, Mexico, Nigeria, China and even the occasional Californian proudly call themselves New Yorkers as soon as they’ve found an apartment somewhere in the five boroughs. Benedict is not looking for new digs, of course, but he certainly has the chance to persuade New Yorkers of all faiths, and even those of none, that he is one of us in the same way that his predecessor won the hearts of so many in this city.

Although many New Yorkers take pride in the city’s secular and occasionally hedonistic image—and that surely is the image dispatched to the provinces through television, film and print—millions here take their faith seriously indeed. We may be home to the cathedrals of commerce, but we are also home to traditional cathedrals, and synagogues, and mosques, and temples. Millions come here to make their fortunes or to indulge in the world’s pleasures. But millions also see themselves as pilgrims in search of the transcendental. (Of course, sometimes the pleasure-seekers and the pilgrims are one in the same!)

Unlike the aggressively secular cities of old Europe, New York retains a spiritual core that often is hidden by the glitz and glamour of commerce and fashion. That’s why papal visits invariably bring out extraordinary crowds, as this one surely will. More than 200,000 people tried to snag a seat for the April 20 Papal Mass at Yankee Stadium, which can seat about 57,000 people for the event.

As Benedict makes his rounds here during his brief visit, he will catch a hopeful glimpse of the future, for Catholics in New York share space with Jews, Muslims, Baptists, evangelical Christians, mainline Protestants, Buddhists, atheists, Hindus, and just about every other denomination with more than a handful of followers. This is the global village writ small; this is where religious and nonreligious people have shown that they can live together, if not in perfect peace then certainly without killing each other.

Benedict no doubt hopes that his visit will inspire us, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, to search for meaning beyond the dollar and instant gratification. Perhaps, in turn, the city will inspire him with its tolerance, its diversity and its sacred spaces.