Public Dispute over the Pope’s Global Significance

Crowds Gathering on 5th Avenue to see the Pope
Credit: Maddy Streets

Pope Francis’ arrival in New York City on 24th September heralded the influx of travelers desperate for a glimpse of the Catholic leader, but many native New Yorkers remained disinterested in the Papal visit. Opinion of the Pope was similarly varied.  While his good work and progressive views are widely lauded, his overall influence is still heavily disputed.  From speaking to the public it quickly becomes apparent that while Catholics are optimistic about his global standing, there are many skeptics who see religious figures as decreasingly important in the modern world.

St Patrick's Cathedral

St Patrick’s Cathedral, 24th September Credit: Maddy Streets

Outside St Patrick’s Cathedral an hour before the Pope’s expected arrival, the crowd was growing. Connie Livanos, 50, an Irish Catholic who immigrated to New Jersey, had tickets to attend the Central Park motorcade but still wanted a glimpse of the Pope at his first event in town. Explaining why she felt the Pope has considerable influence, she said “He’s reaching out to the people, he’s one of the people – he doesn’t set himself so high that he’s unreachable.” Across town at the 9/11 Memorial site, Una Fee, 45, another Irish Catholic who has lived in New York for 15 years, felt equally moved by Pope Francis’ presence. “I haven’t practiced my religion in a while, but this guy might actually bring me back to the Church,” she said. “He’s very liberal in a lot of his views, in a lot of things that I didn’t agree with the Catholic Church on, like their stance on girls who’d had abortions, sexuality.” Fee also believed that these words were being felt by people outside of Catholicism. “I have a lot of friends, even on social media, who are not Catholic and the things that he’s talking about they’re listening to, because he’s not pushing his faith on anybody and just talking sense,” she said.

Garang in Pope Costume

Garang Saluting in Pope Costume Credit: Maddy Streets

Joel Garang, 23, California, embodied this non-Catholic support. When he heard Pope Francis speak from Washington DC earlier in the week about being tolerant and accepting towards immigrants, he felt particularly addressed. Waiting on 5th Avenue for the Pope to arrive at St Patrick’s Cathedral, he was dressed in a Papal costume as a form of homage, not mockery. “It doesn’t matter what beliefs you have or if you believe in anything at all,” said Garang. “[The Pope] spoke about immigrants, even Native Americans which I am half of, so that’s why I really approve of him today definitely.”

Against the backdrop of the 9/11 Memorial and the Freedom Tower, there was strong support for the Pope’s willingness to speak out on global issues.  “I think that a lot of the leaders [of the UN] will listen to him, for the better health of the world,” said Bonnie Bleeker, a Catholic who had travelled from South Dakota purely for the Papal visit.  Mary Szech, a New Yorker, was skeptical about the impact of the Pope’s words, but agreed that his influence still gave him a significant platform. “I think it’s good for him to get involved in political issues,” she said. “As a global leader, I think almost everyone listens to him. I don’t think they believe in everything he says, but they listen.”

In contrast to these positive views, many bystanders had a more cynical view of the Pope’s global role. David, 45, New York, was handing out flyers for Jewish prayer near St Patrick’s and was favorable to Pope Francis’ religious actions, saying “if you use religion for yourself in a way that’s productive and good for yourself and society then that’s good”. However, in terms of wider issues he saw the Pope’s role as minimal. “I think that religion has been marginalized in so far as power is concerned,” he said. Linda Miller, 67, had travelled from Toronto but hadn’t realized her trip overlapped with the Pope’s until she arrived. She argued that his venturing into issues outside of the Church was inappropriate . “I think that he feels, and the liberal part feels, that he is looking after the earth,” she said. “There is probably something to that, but I don’t like the political overtones of that.”

A pair of school girls sat next to the crowds at the 9/11 Memorial. Betsy Rivera, 16, admitted that she hadn’t known who Pope Francis was before his visit to the US was publicized. She said, “We’re just here on our lunch break, our school is round the corner.”

Written on 09/26/15 for an NYU class assignment
Also published on nyumag.com

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