26th Sunday in Ordinary Time B

If you followed the news very closely this week you might have noticed that Pope Francis visited the United States.  And as so many of you know, I was blessed to attend his mass at Madison Square Garden, so when it came time to decide what to preach on this week, I thought about a couple of things.  I noted how many people asked me what the mass was like compared to how many asked me how I intended to break down the Gospel.  Then I realized it was a choice between preaching about Pope Francis or gouging out our eyes if we sin.  It was a pretty easy choice.  Besides I and Zoe, Elyssa and Denise Murphy McGraw were there to represent all of you.  It is my honor to report back.

The first highlight for me was his speech to Congress. Pundits will say he said this conservative thing or this liberal thing as if those are the categories he or the Church thinks in.  But what he really emphasized was the proper functioning of the political system.  He spoke of dialogue, creativity, pragmatism and most crucially, the common good, pursuing the best for the most while protecting the vulnerable.  Coming together and not polarization should be the basis of our politics.

And I was certainly excited about our coming together on Friday for the Papal mass at Madison Square Garden.  I got in line what I thought was pretty early and as I came to the 7th Avenue entrance of the garden on 31st Street, I saw our bus from the diocese unloading our youth ministry contingent and remarkably amid this mass of humanity, I saw Zoe and Elyssa from our parish.  I asked if there were any way I could help and for the next 3 and a half hours I chaperoned 15 teenagers, so that worked out great.

They told us to head down as far as 23rd Street and I was impressed. An eight block long line is a pretty big line.  We got to 23rd Street, then we discovered we had to turn left and go down to 23rd to Eighth, then made a right and walked to 28th to get to the end of the line. We were worried because we had been told that no one could enter the Garden after 3:30 and at that time we were still half a mile away.  Finally, a police officer relieved our fears when from his bullhorn he announced that all people with tickets to the event would be allowed in. I asked him if he meant by the event the Pope.  I did not want to stay on this line for that long and end up in a Beyoncé concert.

When we got into the Garden and air of expectation met us.  Soon the Pope emerged circling the arena floor on a golf cart with New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan.  Great cheers erupted of course.  But what happened next was stunning in its own peculiar way – with only one announcement reminding us, when Francis re-emerged it was at the end of the Opening Procession, no one cheered.  We were singing the opening song.  We were at mass, excited to do the thing that made us Catholic, the mass, the Eucharist; we were doing that which makes us who we are.  And to have our Holy Father preside was a gift to all of us.

Pope Francis spoke in that halting, slow English we heard so often in his prayers.  How moving for us that he would speak his fifth best language to this throng to make us feel at home.  His homily was a promise that through the smog of the city, the hectic routine, the hurriedness and the non-ending pursuit of success, there still shone the light of Christ and it is meant to reach all people.  I was reminded of being at Yankee Stadium as a 15 year old to listen to Pope St. John Paul II.  I was along the third base line while the rest of my parish was in the bleachers (Years later I realized they thought I might be a priest someday.)  He spoke about Lazarus and the rich man and how to be charitable we must give not only of our excess, but of our substance of time and treasure because unless there is sacrifice there can be no love.  Now Francis was speaking of those who are not counted and forgotten in the frenzy of the city.  But there will be light there for there is Christ in the city and the Church is in the city.  Two great men sharing the same message 35 years apart.

There are so many small things that made the night special.  Communion was distribute to 25,000 people as an acapella Latin hymn wafted through the air.  I have never heard a Church as quiet as the whole of Madison Square Garden was.  Then I stole a glance at Pope Francis praying in the presider’s chair.  Eucharist is always a challenge.  A gift and a responsibility and a challenge.  To receive the living God and to know the capability of sharing Christ with others.  I could feel the depth of that prayer in the face of Pope.  It is a challenge to me as a presider of Eucharist.  It is a challenge to each of us who receive the Eucharist.

Finally, as mass was concluding, Cardinal Dolan said that every week we pray in union with Francis our Pope, and now here you are.  And those cheers and love that had been restrained throughout the night were finally unleashed.  It rocked and reverberated the around the Garden rolling from one side to another.  It was if the Knicks had finally won another championship.  Cardinal Dolan said for all of us that this is the kind of night that you know God is alive, Jesus is our older brother and Mary is our mother.  He said the saints are our relatives, saints like Isaac Jogues and I let out a “whoo” for our neighbor and then he said to the Pope and “St. Kateri,” and I screamed with a fury that should have attracted Secret Service attention.  It was a night of hope, joy and peace.  We were one with another, a true body of Christ, brothers and sisters in Christ and gathered around his chief shepherd.

I do want to refer to the readings a little bit.  In the first reading there are two men who were not present when God poured out his spirit upon seventy others, yet they are still prophesying in the camp.  When the seventy complain, Moses responds, “Would that all God’s people were prophets.”  Something similar happens in the Gospel.  Two people are exorcising demons in the name of Jesus.  Because they are outside the inner circle, the apostles complain despite the fact the people are being cured.   Jesus says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  We are called to the work.  Pope Francis in Philadelphia told the story of a famous Philly saint.  Around the turn of the century, Katherine Drexel of the very wealthy Drexel family asked the Pope what could be done for the missions to Native Americans and African Americans and Pope Leo asked her, “What about you?  What can you do?”  The Holy Father asks us the same question. “What about you?”

They say that this has been a historic trip for Pope Francis for all the firsts he has accomplished.  But is will only be historic if something changes.  If the American church is transformed by this visit. If our Church becomes even more sensitive to most vulnerable and if we become a bastion of justice.  If our parish becomes even more merciful.  If the one whose head is down is encouraged to lift it up and if the one whose head is lifted up would look to the side to see where their help was needed.  Then they would say of our Church, “Here is the place of healing, this is where they know they are accepted, this is where justice is spoken, this is the Church.”  Would that all God’s people were prophets!