Sunday, April 20, 2008

A new Pentecost

This is a reflection from a blog that I read regularly called "Whispers in the Loggia." It is a wonderful reflection on the Papal Visit. (

Forgive me, but I need to send up a personal reflection... and hopefully it's of use to one or two of you out there.

The Pope might've finally employed the term "New Pentecost" yesterday morning, but the newness of springtime had already come with him to the canyons of Manhattan.Friday was the season's first genuinely beautiful day in the "capital of the world." But that doesn't explain why something unique could be felt in the Gotham air.Believe me, I've been 'round these parts long enough to know.

Many moons ago, I spent a year living in New York, down on the friendly confines of the Lower East Side. By Providence, that year just happened to be 2002 -- the year everything we thought we knew was turned upside down... the year we came to know the extent to which our leadership had failed us... the year that remains the most painful of my life.

And in its way, this city saved me. Its life filled me with the kind of wonder you can't find anywhere else on this earth, its energy provided a shot of hope and, well, blessed distraction at the time I needed it most. And it was here when, late one fall night of that dreadful year, something snapped inside me and I sat down at the computer and started writing... and writing... and writing... and, after sunrise, looked out onto Union Square and realized that it was what I wanted to do with my life.

I'm not here full-time anymore, but this is still the place that I love more than any other... indeed, the place I call home. And yet, for all the time I've ever spent holding court on Avenue A, watching out for moving platforms and slipping off to the Cloisters, I never felt anything like what rocked the night here on the Pope's first night in town.

Of course, it'd been 13 years since a pontiff had come to this island, and much had changed since the fall of 1995, the first time I ever saw a Pope in the flesh, albeit from a football field away.This time, though, given what's since transpired, it was completely different. At least, it was supposed to be. And, so it was said, not for the better, either.

In my prayer, I've long felt that the ground here in the Northeast has cried out for renewal -- (what should be) panic-inducing levels of participation, low credibility of local leadership, little to no sense of general vocation (along with a concurrent lack of seminarians) and an institutional culture that evolved from administration to management and, in the process, sought to replace fire with a light-bulb can easily lead one to that conclusion. But given the premium on pack mentality of this part of the Big Tent, where change of any sort can seem akin to denying Revelation, it's very easy to feel that you're alone and, ergo, crazy, that everything's fine and you're just connecting dots that don't exist.Not anymore.

A friend in Midtown told me that Friday at St Patrick's was like a Sunday in terms of turnout, people flooding the place. Once I made my own way into town, it was easier than usual to find crosses or rosaries around necks abounding on the streets, and the feeling was just... Good. Encouraging. Supportive. Enthusiastic. All in a way it hadn't felt here, or anywhere around here, in a long time.Later in the evening, while waiting to do a radio interview, I sat by the big fountain behind 30 Rock -- the GE Building, NBC Studios, etc. -- to kill time and just soak up being back here again.It was a picture-perfect night, with just enough haze/smog in the air to give the lights of Times Square a brilliant shade of a "halo" effect.

And then... from the distance... music could be heard. Voices and guitar. Joyous song.

"Holy! Holy! Holy!"

Over and over again.

"Holy! Holy! Holy!"

With each iteration, it came closer.

"Holy! Holy! Holy!"

Repetitive, exuberant chants are no surprise to anyone used to this place -- but from the sound, it became clear that these weren't the Hare Krishnas everyone's used to seeing roam the downtown streets.And then they appeared: Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, Sisters of Life, a host of other orders male and female, cassocked sems and, more than any other, layfolk. Fifty, maybe 70 of 'em. All young. All together. All one. All looking just like me.

"Holy! Holy! Holy!"

Each bore candles, turned heads and kept the singing up, making it a bit louder as the horns and engine-noises of 6th Ave. right by Radio City on a Friday night sought to drown them out.I couldn't help but smile, simply to find that, in the midst of the city some have sought to portray as the global seat of the secularist behemoth, I wasn't alone.

"Holy! Holy! Holy!"

Seeing a beaming onlooker, one perceptive Sister of Life jumped out of the crowd and handed me a prayer-card.

"We're heading down to where he's staying to sing 'Happy Birthday,'" she said. Clearly, no further explanation was necessary."You're welcome to join us."With a studio cameo on deck, I couldn't... and only later did I learn that, from all over the city, crowds like this one were walking, making station stops at the various parishes -- many of which stayed open, many welcoming large crowds of their own into the night -- all to congregate at the Mission House to sing and pray together.In a word, it was... amazing. It blew me away. The contagious joy that marked each face, the light each carried -- not the candles -- broke through a darkness that's long existed on these streets... one that could never be measured in watts or stops of sunlight.

It's common knowledge that the busiest day of the year at the House That Hughes Built isn't Christmas or Easter, or even St Paddy's Day... but Ash Wednesday, when no less than 60,000 penitents pour through its doors. They come from all backgrounds -- CEOs and housecleaners, teachers and technicians, Anglo, Latino, Asian, African... even Hindu, Jewish, Jain and Evangelical. Along these lines, it's been said that, for all the grief and pain of these last years, anyone -- anyone -- who doesn't have a bit of burnt palm on their forehead in the city that day gets looked at funny.

That same sense of identity showed itself last night. But this time, it wasn't Lent they were claiming... but Easter. The New Pentecost. Indeed, their energy, their desire seemed to say that the light-bulb would never suffice and the moment had come to bring the Fire back to the heart of the church in the very midst of this "capital of the world."

(Burn, baby, burn.)

Seeing that felt so good, words still can't describe it. And long after they left, something hung in the air that hadn't in a good while, and never before in my memory. (To back this up, even my cousin on the Upper West Side said she could feel something stirring in the city that day which she couldn't exactly pinpoint.)

It might be a bit presumptuous to immediately say "the Holy Spirit," but whatever it was, it was something.Earlier tonight, I was sitting with a senior official as we compared notes from the last few days. And we both agreed that, for all the concerns, difficulties, delays and what seemed like debacles in the planning and run-up, not only has every expectation of these days been exceeded, but that this experience was "just what we needed." All of us. And hopefully not a few of you who haven't been so blessed and lucky to be here have felt a bit of that over these days, this moment of grace.

Providentially enough, I was sitting by a fountain when that prayer-card came my way. Quoting from B16, its message read thus:

Holy Mary, Mother of God
you have given the world its true light,
Jesus, your Son -- the Son of God.
You abandoned yourself completely
to God's call and thus became a wellspring
of the goodness which flows forth from him.
Show us Jesus.
Lead us to him.
Teach us to know and love him,
so that we too can become
capable of true loveand be fountains of living water
in the midst of a thirsting world.

Lord, send out your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth... of this earth... of this church!

"May tongues of fire, combining burning love of God and neighbor with zeal for the spread of Christ’s Kingdom, descend on all present!"

These have been amazing days, friends, and in that moment by the fountain it became clear that, as in a miracle, the tide had, at long last, begun to turn.His own energy-level at an apex unequaled over his three-year reign, Papa Ratzi might be heading home tonight... but, church, our work is just beginning.

It's been said before but bears repeating: "the Holy Spirit is ready -- but the answer depends on us."

It's the call of our time, and the work of renewal is already underway in our midst. But it can only happen if each of us go "all in."

Gratefully, it's not a question of programs, budgets, committees or technologies. All it takes is just one word -- YES.

It's time, gang -- our time.

All in, all together, let's get to it.

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