Francis Visits America: Part Pope, Part Rock Star

Francis Visits America: Part Pope, Part Rock Star

Francis Visits America: Part Pope, Part Rock Star

Andrea Hennessy left her night shift in Suffern, New York, and jumped on a train shortly after 7 a.m. Friday to be certain that she would have her moment with Pope Francis. By early afternoon, the line to get into Madison Square Garden in New York City for a once-in-a-lifetime chance to celebrate Mass with the leader of the Roman Catholic Church snaked 11 blocks south from the iconic arena, then one block west and back up again.

“With the adrenaline, who needs sleep?” said Hennessy, 65, who was first in line to see the pope. Francis “really speaks to our time. I believe he’s a holy man and he inspires people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.”

The bulging crowd outside Pope Francis’s Madison Square Garden Mass on Friday night showed that, much more than just a religious leader, Francis is a popular commodity. He’s able to pack an arena that is better known for hosting basketball and hockey teams, and sold-out Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel concerts.

Fans are excited to see Francis. Wherever he goes, they hold out their hands in hopes of touching him and snap selfies liberally when they can.

The pontiff isn’t just well liked in New York. He maintains a Twitter presence in nine languages with a total of 22 million followers. His English-language account alone has 7.3 million fans. That makes him roughly a Twitter peer of pop star Miley Cyrus and basketball giant LeBron James.

The 78-year-old has a much more favorable rating with Americans than the church he leads. Among Catholics, 3 in 4 have a favorable view of the pope, and 50 percent of the general American population feels goodwill toward the pontiff, according to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll. The Catholic Church in the United States, meanwhile, has struggled to attract new members, and just one new convert enters the church for every six members who leave.

The line that developed throughout the afternoon in Manhattan on Friday stretched beyond a mile in one of the densest areas of the city, a testament to the devotion of people to share a room with the pope. Vendors trailed the end of the line, selling Vatican flags and flags from Francis’s home country of Argentina for $3.

The long line to get into Madison Square Garden. At this point, the line was close to a mile long.  Clark Mindock/International Business Times

Pressed against metal barricades that lined Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, crowds waited for the chance to see Pope Francis.  Clark Mindock/International Business Times

Media teams camped out down the street from the spot where Pope Francis arrived at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Sept. 25, 2015.  Clark Mindock/International Business Times

“I consider myself a huge fan girl of Pope Francis,” said Nolie Wagner, 18, with a wide smile. Wagner got in line just south of 26th Street on Eighth Avenue, nearly as far as the line would go. “I don’t always get fan-girly. Pope Francis has definitely been that person that I just get so excited about.”

Wagner, an international studies student at Marymount Manhattan College, was wearing a bright red shirt with the white outline of two hands, thumbs pointed inward at the chest. “This girl loves Pope Francis,” the shirt read. Wagner said that while her non-Catholic classmates focus on negatives when they think of the church as an institution, the same is not true when they talk about the pontiff. “They always have positive things to say about him,” she said.

When asked, most people in line pointed to the humble and inclusive image the pope projects as the reason why so many people think so highly of him. His position as the spiritual leader of such a large religious institution brings with it some default popularity and draw, but to many, he has something special. To those followers, he’s speaking truth and steering the church into the future.

“This man is the right pope at the right time,” said Peter Zaremba, 51, a salesman from Peapack, New Jersey. With him “it’s not about us and them. It’s not about tradition; it’s not about hierarchy. It’s about healing. I think that’s what this man is about.”

Francis may draw crowds like a celebrity, but he’s not a performer, people said. He’s sincere.

A homeless man dozes outside Madison Square Garden in New York City, Sept. 25, 2015. Pope Francis’ call for Roman Catholics to help the disadvantaged has been a cornerstone of his ministry. His supporters say that is a good message for the church.  Clark Mindock/International Business Times

Rosary beads are seen in the hands of Brother Dale, 22, who is part of St. Anthony’s Church in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. Pope Francis’ approach “is meeting people where they’re at,” Brother Dale said. “The immensity of all these people and their excitement … I think it’s going to be an amazing moment.” Clark Mindock/International Business Times

The enormous line was managed swiftly by the police and security units at each intersection. One officer said that the level of security was much heavier than for, say, a presidential visit. Presidents don’t draw crowds the size that Francis drew. Shop owners along the line seemed to agree: Even those who had been there for decades, through years of concerts and sports events at Madison Square Garden, said they had never seen a line like the one snaking toward the pontiff Friday.

In fact, the pope’s Mass was such a big event that organizers opted to bring in celebrities — like Harry Connick Jr., Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Hudson — to perform before him just to get the audience to arrive early and avoid the logistical nightmare of a last-minute run to enter the arena for the 6 p.m. Mass.

During the Mass, Pope Francis spoke in his native Spanish about the frenzy of city life. “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,” Francis said in his homily. “They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts.”

He added: “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.”

Roadblocks are put in place outside Madison Square Garden in New York City prior to a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, Sept. 25, 2015.  Clark Mindock/International Business Times

A vendor sells flags with the image of Pope Francis on them.  Clark Mindock/International Business Times

A ticket for the Madison Square Garden papal Mass is seen in the hands of Father Joe Tierney, 54, who runs a school in the Bronx borough of New York City, which is 67 percent Hispanic, 31 percent African-American and 2 percent “other.” He said Pope Francis’ visit has been inspiring for his students.  Clark Mindock/International Business Times

Pope Francis has had a busy week. He started off his multiday trip in the United States, his first visit to the country, in Washington, D.C., where he met with President Barack Obama and delivered the first papal address to a joint session of Congress. He arrived in New York on Thursday evening, where he led an evening prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He began his day Friday with an address to the United Nations General Assembly, then delivered a multireligious service at the 9/11 memorial, visited an East Harlem school and had a motorcade ride through Central Park. His Madison Square Garden Mass was the final New York City event, and soon afterward he was scheduled to leave for Philadelphia, where he was expected to celebrate two Masses and visit a prison before returning to Rome on Sunday night.

Seeing the pontiff was tough for Francis fans who weren’t able to obtain one of the limited tickets that were given away. A review of New York City Craigslist ads on Thursday priced tickets to Madison Square Garden, which seats about 20,000, as high as $200 a ticket. Even if tickets were pricey, demand was high: There were 93,143 ticket requests for pope events in New York City, which has 9.2 million Catholics in the metropolitan area.

Lawrie Hart, 68, had just exited Pennsylavia Station — the rail hub below Madison Square Garden — with his wife, Helen, when he ran into the pope crowd Friday night. The tourists from New Zealand said they weren’t Catholic, but “just happened in” when they saw the line of people eager to see Francis.

“Too good of an opportunity to pass up,” Hart said.

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