A Papal Visit: Lasting Impressions

9-25-Pope3Pope Francis speaks at a multireligious gathering at the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York, September 25, 2015.

When thousands upon thousands of Americans gathered in Washington, New York and Philadelphia last week to welcome Pope Francis to the United States, many in the crowds said that even a fleeting glimpse of the pontiff had had a profound effect on them.

Although I was not among the throngs that cheered as the popemobile passed, I can attest to the lasting impact a brief encounter with such a religious leader can have.

Twenty years ago, on a cold, damp day in the New Jersey Meadowlands, I was present for the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II (now St. John Paul the Great) at Giants Stadium.  As a representative of the Baha’i Faith to the Brotherhood-Sisterhood Committee of Bergen County, New Jersey, I had received an invitation for the Mass and a reserved seat among other interfaith representatives: Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Sikh, Jewish, Protestants of many denominations, all holding umbrellas.

As we entered the stadium, a group of Muslims went off to a quiet area to say their evening prayer, then came back to their soggy seats. They did not leave when they could have. Nobody left.

The ground beneath our seats was covered with tarps, which allowed the constant rain and the heavily dripping water from our umbrellas, to build up almost to the tops of our boots. I wore a long raincoat over a sweater, but it was cold.  I still remember the hot cup of tea I finally had at home that night.

Surrounded by swampland we sat. When the pope circled the stadium in his popemobile, we stood. And we stayed. Nobody really complained. We knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A choir sang. We rejoiced along with the music.

My mother died in 1987, nearly a decade before I attended the Giants Stadium papal Mass.  I am sorry she missed that.  She was Catholic, and had a Jewish husband. Growing up I didn’t know another family like ours, which celebrated Christmas with one set of relatives, and Passover with another.

My mother was very bitter about her experience attending Catholic schools: her handwriting was exquisite (“the nuns cracked me on the knuckles until they bled” was her response to people who cherished not only her Christmas cards, but the handwritten address on the envelopes). After my mother died, I found an 8-by-10 photo of Father Cassidy, who she spoke of with deep affection.

Seeing the pope in 1995, I could feel sympathy for my mother’s experience. I somehow shared that moment with her, and that came back to me watching and listening and reading coverage of the visit of the current pope.

For the visit of Pope Francis, I stayed home and watched on television. In his relatively short tenure, he continues to break down ancient walls. He recognizes the sexual abuse some clergy inflicted on Catholic children. He has shown compassion for Catholic women who had no option but abortion. He emphasizes the responsibility we all have to preserve the God-given water supply and clean air. Clearly Pope Francis’ God loves all humanity — whatever gender or belief.

Pope Francis recognizes human frailties — and encourages us all, of whatever faith — to draw strength from whatever we call our Higher Power. I was reminded of how indelible an experience it is to be able to gaze — even briefly — upon such a singular individual. I have no doubt that 20 years from now the pontiff’s visit will still be touching the hearts of those who saw and heard him.

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