On Thursday, Sept. 24, I had the privilege of sitting with New York Comptroller DiNapoli, Mayor de Blasio, Gov. Cuomo and Sandra Lee in St. Patrick Cathedral’s first pew during the Pope’s visit. That’s a far cry from the first time I encountered a Pope on Oct. 4, 1965.
Back then the nuns at S.S. Cyril and Methodius Grammar School in Greenpoint Brooklyn marched me and 500 fellow students over the Pulaski Bridge to Queens Blvd. in Long Island City to wave as Pope Paul VI passed by in a bubble top limousine.
I remember two things from that visit: getting the best glimpse of the Pope because I was the tallest kid in the school and standing in 50-mile-per-hour frigid winds.
While I had better viewing arrangements at each subsequent papal visit, one thing was constant: John Paul in 1979 and 1995, Benedict in 2008 and Pope Francis had an effect. Flipping through newspapers I saved from each occasion, the articles often read the same.
There’s the loving enthusiasm of millions of New Yorkers and there’s the parsing of Papal comments by the media and the political class. They search for hints he’s leaning to the right or the left on hot issues.
As a lifelong student of Catholic history and in researching my forthcoming book, "The Sons of St. Patrick: A History of the Archbishops of New York," I learned that Popes speak in subtle terms particularly when describing Catholic social thought. And Pope Francis is no exception.
On the White House lawn the Pope said, “As the son of immigrants, I am happy to be a guest in this country which was largely built by such families.” He was right; most of our nation’s infrastructure was built by Irish, Italian, and Polish immigrants. They laid the railroad tracks that united the east and west and constructed roads, bridges and skyscrapers, including the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center.
The Pope’s remarks on unjust treatment of immigrants are valid. In my 2004 book The American Catholic Voter, I describe the violent anti-Catholic outbursts in the 1830s, 1840s and 1890s that culminated in the passage in 1924 of the Johnson Act.
That law eliminated immigration quotas from predominately Catholic eastern and southern Europe and increased admissions from norther European Protestant countries. Today fringe groups are calling for similar legislation that would close our doors to people from south of our borders.
He had plenty to say on global warning and the environment. He reminded us that as human persons made in the image of God, we have an obligation to be stewards of the earth.
But what my friends on the left ignore is that in his encyclical, Laudate Si, he spoke of a human ecology that Catholic intellectual Dr. Robert Royal pointed out, emphasizes “that an integral part of this vision is that abortion, coercive means of population control, experimentation on embryos and other offences against the sanctity of life are part of the very same callous stance towards the natural world that the environmentalists deplore.”
His best speech was delivered in Philadelphia on religious freedom. Francis reminded immigrants that while their ethnic traditions are important they must also “be responsible citizens, and contribute fruitfully to the life of the communities in which [they] live.” That means they are to act within the law.
He also warned against modern tyrants who “seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality.” And Francis added, “it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.”
That speech, plus his earlier visit to the Little Sisters of the Poor, sent a strong message to those trying to impose laws on Catholics that violate their religious beliefs.
Like the visits of his three predecessors, memories of the Francis pilgrimage will fade. But if his message, that the “laws of nature and of nature’s god” are the great guardians of the soul of democracy, lingers in the hearts and minds of some New Yorkers, in my judgment the trip was a success.
George J. Marlin, a former executive director of the Port Authority of N.Y. and N.J., is the author of "The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact." He also is a columnist for TheCatholicThing.org and the Long Island Business News. Read more reports from George J. Marlin — Click Here Now.
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