The homeless and hungry who materialize with each dawn on the breadline outside the Church of St. Francis were the first people in New York to understand what would make Pope Francis so different from his predecessors.
For them, the name he chose said it all.
Francis was the also the name of the church on W. 31st Street where the needy had lined up every morning since the Great Depression. The Franciscan friars who fed them had been a warm and compassionate constant through all the changes of Vatican II and the burgeoning sex abuse scandals, through the reigns of Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII and Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
“The friars, they’re realty genuine,” a 54-year breadline regular named Michael Stewart said of the Franciscans. “They’re committed. They do it seven days a week. They really live it. They really care about it.”
As dawn broke on the first morning after the selection of the new Pope Francis last year, the 200 people on line included a man in a knit cap who called out to the friar in charge, Father Paul Lostritto.
“Congratulations on the pope named Francis!” the man said.
“Thank you,” Father Paul replied.
The man hoisted a cup of steaming coffee that had just been dispensed from one of a pair of urns.
“New Pope Francis, this is for you!” he exclaimed. “I drink unto you!”
Others in the line murmured in agreement, saying a pope of this name was sure also to share the spirit of these Franciscan friars. Father Paul himself allowed that he did not yet know much about the new pontiff.
“I was on the Internet last night,” he said. “He’s got a good rep.”
With the arrival of Pope Francis in New York this week, the whole city is learning what the folks on the breadline had decided right away. Father Paul stood outside the church early Friday morning and marveled at the wisdom of those who appeared here with the first light.
“They’re all amazing,” Father Paul said. “They all knew.”
The Franciscan spirit had become all the more important as the size of the line had doubled since the first morning of Pope Francis’ reign. It now extended down the block and around the corner and down that block and around the next corner.
As the church’s bells began to toll, those in line started to receive their daily bread in the form of a sandwich along with milk or juice and coffee. The recipients included a 43-year-old man of the streets named Ezzard Davis who had used his meagre means to buy three pope dolls. Two of them had been stolen on Thursday.
“They stole my popes,” Davis said. “Isn’t that something? Stole the Pope. Somebody’s not going to get blessed.”
The head and torso of his remaining doll was sticking out of his backpack as he expounded on the particular qualities of Pope Francis.
“I think he’s very inspirational,” Davis said. “He’s for the poor. He’s down to earth. He has humor. And he doesn’t take any crap.”
Davis summed it all up.
“I love him!” he declared.
Davis exchanged a high five with Father Paul.
“God is good!” Davis exclaimed.
“God is good!” Father Paul agreed.
“I know where my blessings come from,” Davis said.
He prepared to set off with his meal along with his remaining doll.
“And I got my pope!” he exclaimed “Extra-strength!”
Father Paul had learned a great deal more about Pope Francis since that first morning, reading whatever he came upon.
“I like to know what he has to say,” Father Paul reported.
And it all led to a wonderful conclusion regarding the breadline.
“This is exactly the kind of thing he wants us to be doing, everybody to be doing,” Father Paul said.
He added, “We’re doing it. And with joy!”
Father Paul then proceeded from the breadline to the days’ next joyful undertaking.
“Now we got the food pantry,” he said. “We’re going to start with that.”
As Father Paul and some volunteers were preparing meals to be delivered to the homes of those in need, big news broke in Washington, D.C.., where Pope Francis had been the day before. The pope had displayed that same Francis spirit, both as he waded in among the homeless and as he addressed the U.S. Congress.
In the Capitol, Pope Francis had stood with House Speaker John Boehner on his left and Vice President Joe Biden on his right. Word now came that Boehner had decided to resign. Boehner had made the surprise announcement at a morning meeting. He had then recited the Prayer of Saint Francis:
“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.”
Pope Francis seemed to have influenced Boehner’s decision to step down from a position that augured only strife with the Republican crazies.
There appeared to be at least a chance that at the very same time Pope Francis had influenced Biden to step up and run for president. The president potentially being an instrument for peace like no other save perhaps a pope such as Francis.
The sense that Francis was a pope like no other had accompanied him to New York. The anticipation of his arrival for evening vespers at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday turned a ritzy stretch of Fifth Avenue into a realm where money suddenly lost meaning. The braggadocio billionaire Donald Trump was booed. Limos became cringe worthy as Pope Francis rode through the city in a little Fiat fit for a friar, seeming to touch what is best in everybody just at a glimpse of him.
On Friday morning, the pope addressed the United Nations. He spoke of those such as had been lined up at dawn on the breadline 20 blocks away.
“We are dealing with real men and women who struggle and suffer, who live in real poverty,” he said.
Pope Francis next headed down to Ground Zero. His predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had been there in 2008, but that visit now seemed to be all but forgotten. The pope named Francis met with family members who had lost loved ones on 9/11. He attended an interfaith service.
From there, Pope Francis headed to Our Lady Queen of Angels School. The qualities that make him different were all the more apparent as he met with school kids and then with refugees and immigrants. A fragment of rainbow appeared in the sky and more than a few folks pronounced it a sign from God.
Tens of thousands of people were waiting to see the pope as he traveled down through Central Park. He again proved the power of deepest decency as people cheered and waved.
In the early evening, Pope Francis arrived at Madison Square Garden, where a Billy Joel concert had originally been scheduled. Pope John Paul II had been a sensation at a youth mass here back in 1979, rousing the crowd to near delirium by cooing as he might have to a child. People spoke of him as the first rock star pope.
But then had come the sex scandals that upended the whole church.
Pope Francis now entered the great hall, humble, pausing to bless one sick child and another and another. He proceeded onto an unadorned altar. He sat upon a chair that had been built in a garage by day laborers who advised against calling it simple, for its beauty was their spiritual connection to it.
And that made it the perfect chair for Pope Francis to rise from when it came time to deliver his homily. He was soft spoken, invoking life in its full range, “happiness and hopes with disappointment and bitterness.” He described people who “live and breathe in smoke but have seen light and have breathed fresh air.” He talked of “the hidden richness in our world…big cities bringing together all the different ways people have found to express the meaning of life, whatever their circumstances may be.”
Of course, he reminded the assemblage of the homeless and immigrants and “forgotten elderly,” all those who “live in a deafening anonymity.”
Pope Francis was a far subtler, and yet also far more powerful star of any kind than has ever appeared in the Garden. The word pontiff is said by some to be derived from the Latin roots pons — a bridge- and facere — build. Here was a bridge builder on a scale that was at once intimate and monumental, as quiet as if speaking one-on-one yet doing so with all 20,000 there.
He was not bringing a new sprit to the church. He was bringing a true spirit, a spirit that the church never should have lost, that goes back to the earliest teachings of Jesus, that leads to the embrace of the Almighty.
And at the mention of that embrace, Pope Francis smiled with a joy as pure and genuine as a child’s.
“This is marvelous, “ he said.
Just across Seventh Avenue and a half block down W. 31st Street was the Church of Saint Francis, where the folks on the bread line had been the first in the city to understand what would make this pope so wonderfully different.
On Saturday morning, the hungry and homeless will be lined up once again with the dawn. The bells of the Church of St. Francis will toll and the friars will distribute the daily bread just as the pope who chose that name prepares to depart for another city.