If I had the real Pope with me today, the real Francis, we would not have gone to a literary festival in Queens at all. I would have shown him the churches that the New York Archdiocese just closed. I would have taken the real Francis to see the sign on the front of St. Elizabeth’s in Manhattan which was closed yesterday.
“Help Us Welcome Pope Francis.”
I found this on Twitter, where I find a lot of interesting things lately. A group of serious Catholics who want to let Pope Francis know what Catholics are like in America in advance of his September visit here wants you to download and print a cute cartoon of the Pope’s image. Then, take a quick selfie with him/it (remember Flat Stanley?) to post on Facebook and Instagram, to let Pope Francis know what we’re up to.
On so many levels, I find this whole campaign to be really lovely. Catholics – like me – are a diverse, active group engaged in lots of tremendous church-based activities. And the Pope should see that diversity in the event that his hand-picked audiences during the visit are more, well, hand-picked than they should be. Once the images are collected, the Pope presumably will get a clearer picture of the church in America.
I wanted this to include me, but for a number of unrelated reasons, I am not singing in a church choir or teaching Catechism any longer, so I worried that the Pope wouldn’t know what I was doing. How can he continue his ministry if the only view of Catholics he sees are those who are all lined up smiling in church pews. That’s what many of the early Flat Francis images look like. I smile in church – I love churches. But this is different.
So I decided to download Flat Francis and take him with me around New York for one day. The images just below are my journey. Nothing special, nothing flashy, nothing much to show for my day actually, now that I think about it. But, in fact, it is a day in the life of a New York City Catholic, for better or worse. I had no hidden agenda, I decided not to mention whether or not the Pope should say Mass in Yankee Stadium instead of Madison Square Garden – that’s a kind of a hot topic. And I don’t even want to start to think about the craziness that will be on that one day when he speaks in front of both houses of Congress. I just wanted the Flat Francis promoters to know that Catholics in New York, at least, get up and get out on a beautiful day and spend it with their friends.
I started out uptown in Manhattan. Then we got on the train together and went out to Long Island City in Queens, New York to the Queens Lit Fest – a two-day celebration of writers, sponsored by Inspired Word.
We changed to the famous 7 train at Times Square and continued on to Queens.
We had a fabulous time, Flat Francis and I, and then we came home, taking the #4 train this time.
If you’ve ever done a Flat Stanley exercise with your children, you come to realize in short order that the Flat Stanley cutout – or, in this case, the Flat Francis – takes on a certain human quality right off the bat. I wanted to show him the places I go and I wanted to introduce him to the people I care about in the Queens literary community who were out in force this afternoon.
And it’s ironic because if I had the real Pope with me today, the real Francis, we would not have gone to a literary festival in Queens at all. I would have shown him the churches that the New York Archdiocese just closed. I would have taken the real Francis to see the sign on the front of St. Elizabeth’s in Manhattan which was closed yesterday. I would have wanted the 1148 parishioners who signed a hopeless petition to stop the closing to meet with the Pope to let him know how they feel, now that their sanctuary is lost.
Sanctuary is a lot like that local restaurant you like – the one where the waiters know how you like your coffee or how you always forget to ask for the dressing on the side. It’s a place you come to know, it’s a place that knows you, too. When you step into your place of sanctuary, you breathe more freely and a sense of a familiar peace washes over you and you carry that sense with you when you leave to resume your day.
It’s bigger than closing one building and asking the people who use it to start using the one up the block instead. I wouldn’t even want my post office to close let alone my church. For many of these newly uprooted dispersed Catholics, the church – like St. Elizabeth’s – is where you buried the dead, raised your children, saw pageants every Christmas, and found a comforting peace. And while the children will probably not miss one church building over another, it’s that intangible sense of a comforting peace that will be lost to you.
I was thinking about this today as I sat listening to the readings with my Flat Francis in Queens. There’s a close knit open mic community that grew up together over the course of nearly a year at a coffee house along a really barren stretch of Northern Boulevard with clear views of the Empire State Building from the front door of the place. We met every Wednesday evening and while it was not a sacred gathering of any recognizable sort, it became our sanctuary where fledgling comedians, writers, rappers, singers, players, and poets could share their work and feel safe, supported, and at home. The run with that venue ended in March and we’ve been getting together in other places ever since, all the while trying to recreate sanctuary. But it’s gone.
So, here’s the thing. It was sweet traveling with even a simple laminated cutout of this extraordinary pope today. And I do want him to know what Catholics in America want so he can help us get that elusive thing, whatever it is. But I would also want him to know how I value an old, now empty building that housed, no, houses, a tremendous amount of sacred energy. When so many prayers are directed to a place, even though it is closed, it will always be a church. It’s just that it can no longer be a sanctuary, too, to the people it once served.
Cherish your sanctuary. I’ve learned to treat mine with respect.
Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood. She blogs on The Backpack Press and Tumbleweed Pilgrim and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one. She is the author of “A Marshmallow on the Bus” and “Prayer Beads on the Train” and a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain. Most of her writing is done on the bus. You can catch Anne’s new Internet radio shows – Nilesite Writes and Born in the Bronx – on Our Salon Radio; you can follow Anne on Wattpad, Instagram, and Twitter at @nilesite.
Photo credit: all photos, the author