One of our neighbors is a very committed 80-something year old Catholic woman. Over the years, she and I have become good friends. We talk a lot about Jesus and the church. She tells me stories of her life in Greenpoint in the 60s and 70s. I keep her updated on all the comings and goings around our church. We share a Netflix account so she can watch reruns of Murder She Wrote and M*A*S*H.
Three years ago, when the white smoke rose in the Vatican, my friend called me in excitement, “there’s a new pope! He’s a Jesuit! We have a Jesuit new pope!” It meant so much to me that in her excitement over all this news, my friend chose to celebrate with me, her young, Protestant, minister buddy.
This summer she fell and broke her hip, and she’s been in the hospital or a rehabilitation facility ever since. It’s been a very difficult and painful thing for her to lose her autonomy and to have to rely on others after having lived independently for so much of her life.
We were both incredibly excited when Francis announced his plans to visit New York City. After her fall this summer, I encouraged her to focus and work hard in rehab and promised her that I would find a way to get her to see the Pope.
She didn’t think she could do it. She thought the crowds would be too much and she didn’t know how she could get there. She told me “no” on several occasions when I called her with tickets and plans. But on Friday morning, I tried one last attempt and told her to be ready with a wheelchair at 1pm. If I had to, I’d wheel her across Central Park myself.
She finally accepted my offer, and thankfully I found a cab and the roads were remarkably clear. We made it through security and were directed toward a section that had been set aside for people in wheelchairs.
Unfortunately, the organizers did not anticipate so many people in wheelchairs. The designated space filled up by 2pm, so we were directed to a different spot – one where able-bodied people had been waiting since 11am.
As more and more people in wheelchairs arrived, the problem became clearer. There was no way the folks in wheelchairs could see over the able-bodied people standing in front of them. One woman pointed this out to me, and we strategized on how we might improve the situation.
Earlier in the morning, I attended the Pope’s Interfaith Prayers for Peace at Ground Zero, and so was still wearing my fire department uniform and clerical collar. Perhaps the experience of praying for peace earlier in the day emboldened me with the outrageous idea that I might convince the able-bodied people in front to move back and allow the people in wheelchairs to move in front of them.
I appealed to their good will. I cited stories of Jesus and how we are to be compassionate and generous and to care for others. I explained that if we all moved back, no one would lose their spot, and everyone would be able to see since the people in wheelchairs wouldn’t block anyone’s view. Most people agreed with me, but only a few were willing to give up their spot. Once people realized that some people wouldn’t go along with the plan, it became clear that no one would participate.
As the Pope sped by, the people standing in front cheered and the people in wheelchairs did as well, even if they couldn’t get a good look at him. Everyone seemed in good spirits. I suppose that’s the “happy ending” of this story – that people were joyful just to be in the presence of the Pope. I wanted to stomp my feet and say “but wouldn’t it have been so much better if we had experienced a miracle of generosity? Isn’t that what Jesus would have wanted for us?” It wouldn’t have cost us anything to move three feet back and make a place for everyone.
But it is our very human tendency to see the world as not having “enough” for all of us. We fear there isn’t enough of the Pope for everyone, so we feel the need to stake our claim to the front row.