As Pope Francis arrives this week for the fifth-ever papal visit to the Big Apple, he’ll be buoyed by a modern-day tradition — New Yorkers love their visiting popes.
Somber like Paul VI, ebullient like John Paul II, gentle like Benedict XVI: All of the popes who traveled to New York over the past five decades have thrived on enormous, enthused crowds in a city where Catholics have long been the largest religious denomination.
Pope Francis’ salt-of-the-earth style seems an especially good match for New York, and his distinction as the first pontiff from the Americas has added to the expectations for his trip.
“There are a lot of Catholics in the city,” said Peter Quinn, author of Looking for Jimmy: A Search for Irish America. “He’s head of an organization with a billion people . . . practicing Catholics, cultural Catholics, even people out of the church, they want the leader treated with a certain kind of respect.”
Some 36 percent of the New York metropolitan region’s residents are Catholic, according to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. That is tied with Boston and Pittsburgh for the biggest percent of Catholics in the top 30 metro areas — but given New York’s larger size, it makes the city essentially the capital of Catholic America.
A breakout of the institute’s data shows especially large proportions of Catholics on Long Island: 45 percent in Nassau and 48 percent in Suffolk. (For the city’s five boroughs, it is 30 percent.)
Beyond the large number of New Yorkers who identify themselves as Catholic, there are many others who have left the church but feel its tug when a pope visits.
Nationally, the Pew Research Center found that while 21 percent of Americans say they are Catholic, nearly 1 in 10 Americans who practice another faith, or none at all, consider themselves “partially Catholic.” Adding in those who consider themselves former Catholics, and those who have some other Catholic connection — perhaps those with a Catholic parent but not brought up in the faith — means that 45 percent of Americans are Catholic or have some connection to Catholicism, Pew reported this month.
That’s one reason for the attention that visiting popes receive.
“The people I know, there’s still an emotional attachment, even if it’s not religious anymore,” Quinn said. “You have a certain attachment to these symbols, I think. It touches something in people.”
Appealing to other masses
Another reason is that the popes have had crossover appeal. Beginning with Pope John XXIII, they’ve been working to undo many centuries of ill will toward Jews and are always sure to make a gesture of solidarity to New York’s large Jewish community.
“Ask Jewish New Yorkers of a certain age, and they’ll tell you that John was the first pope they really embraced,” said Terry Golway, author of Machine Made: Tammany Hall and the Creation of Modern American Politics. When Pope Paul VI arrived, cheers were especially strong for him in the heavily Jewish enclave of Forest Hills, Queens, news accounts noted.
That 1965 trip came at what seems to have been the peak of Catholic influence in the city.
In Rome, the three-year Second Vatican Council was near its end. Paul VI’s decision to retain the church’s opposition to artificial birth control, which led to widespread dissent, was still three years away. The nation had mourned the death of its first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, whose widow greeted the pope. Millions of people had flocked to the Vatican Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park to see Michelangelo’s Pieta.
On Long Island, the Diocese of Rockville Centre, created eight years earlier, was rapidly building churches and schools. And New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman, organizing the first papal trip to the Western Hemisphere, presided regally from a chancery dubbed the Powerhouse.
Police estimated that some 630,000 people watched the pope’s motorcade travel slowly from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan via the Queensboro Bridge on Oct. 4, 1965. Many spectators were Catholic school students given the day off.
The key moment of the trip was the pope’s call at the United Nations for an end to war: “Jamais plus la guerre, jamais plus la guerre!”
It became a template for the future addresses that popes would give at the UN.
When Pope John Paul II prepared for the next papal visit in 1979 — a six-city journey in the 12th month of his papacy — he said his own speech at the UN would be “an extension” of Paul’s. The same will likely apply to Francis’ address before the General Assembly on Friday, just nine days short of the 50th anniversary of Paul’s call for peace.
The charismatic John Paul used a method that would turn up in many more of his journeys: Celebrate a nation’s highest cultural ideas — and then hold the people to them. At Battery Park, with the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop, he spoke of the freedom this symbol meant for immigrants, and of Americans’ “willingness to share this freedom with others.”
Later, in a Mass at Yankee Stadium, he spoke of the responsibility that freedom requires: “We cannot stand idly by enjoying our own riches and freedom, if, in any place, the Lazarus of the 20th century stands at our door.” He also attacked “the lifestyle of many of the members of our rich and permissive societies.”
Francis is likely to hit similar themes.
John Paul returned to New York in 1995, wizened and bent after breaking his leg the previous year, but still dynamic as he celebrated Mass in Central Park. Msgr. Frank Maniscalco, then director of communications for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recalled how the pope shocked the security contingent at the end of a service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The plan had been for him to leave by a side door. Instead, he went back down the main aisle and out the front to greet more people, recalled Maniscalco, now pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in West Hempstead.
All of the visiting popes have struck a chord in New York because of the people they are and the position they hold, according to Maniscalco. “Catholics really do sense the pope as head of the church,” he said, adding that like the heads of other religions, a pope can give his people the sense of being in contact with God’s will.
Much as John Paul thrived on his connection to Polish New Yorkers, other papal visitors have had ties to ethnic communities as well. In 2008, Pope Benedict connected to German Catholics through a service at a traditionally German church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
For Francis, watch for the impact that the visit of a South American pope whose native language is Spanish will have on Latinos, who, according to Public Religion Research Institute data, make up the majority of Catholics within New York City.
Times, and attitudes, have changed
Popes weren’t always welcome in New York.
Throughout the 19th century, “the idea of a pope visiting New York would be unthinkable,” said historian Patrick McNamara, author of “New York Catholics: Faith, Attitude & the Works!”
In 1853, the journey of Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, a papal nuncio, sparked riots in various cities. To help the cleric safely board his ship home, New York’s mayor arranged for Bedini to be taken in secret to Staten Island and put on a tug that met the vessel.
New York’s tough, Irish-born Archbishop John Hughes, who was in Cuba trying to recover his fading health, later wrote Bedini that if he’d been home, “We should have taken a carriage at my door, even an open one if the day had been fine enough, and gone by the ordinary streets to the steamboat.”
An 1898 film short of Pope Leo XIII giving his blessings alarmed Protestants who thought it might have been shot in the United States, McNamara said. “This was shown in nickelodeons around the country, and there was a big uproar because people were scared that the pope was actually making his way to the United States.”
The visit of Ireland’s Cardinal Michael Logue to celebrate the centennial of the Archdiocese of New York in 1908 was more promising. He brought greetings from Pope Pius X and received a welcoming letter from President Theodore Roosevelt. Catholics responded with a huge outpouring; newspapers provided expanded and respectful coverage.
In 1936, Spellman, then an auxiliary bishop in Boston, engineered a trip by the Vatican’s No. 2 official, Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, the future Pope Pius XII. He stayed in the Manhasset mansion owned by Catholic philanthropist and businessman Nicholas Brady and his wife, Genevieve. Called “Inisfada,” Gaelic for “Long Island,” it later became a Jesuit retreat house that closed and was demolished in 2013.
Having brought the second-ranking figure in the Vatican to New York, Spellman then got to host Pope Paul VI’s visit as archbishop of New York. “By ’65, this was old hat for Spellman,” McNamara said.
Now, as with the earlier papal trips, there is great anticipation among Catholic New Yorkers.
“Just on a personal level, I have appreciated each visit,” said Sister Camille D’Arienzo, a longtime commentator on WINS/1010 radio who has observed the trips. “But I haven’t felt the depth of warmth and almost comfort that he’s coming. I’m so proud of him.”
Paul Moses is Professor of Journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY and former city editor of Newsday, where he was the lead writer for a team that won the Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York’s Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). His book The Saint and the Sultan won the 2010 Catholic Press Association award for best history book.
[This piece originally appeared in Newsday.]