Every morning since the Great Depression, through the changes of Vatican II and the burgeoning sex abuse scandals, through the reigns of Pope Pius XI and Pope Pius XII and Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, the Franciscan friars at St. Francis of Assisi Church in Manhattan have manned a breadline for anyone in need.
As dawn broke on the first morning since the selection of the new Pope Francis, more than 200 men and women stood in two lines outside the church of the same name on West 31st Street, looking chilled from another night of living on the street. A man in a knit cap called out to the friar on duty, Father Paul Lostritto.
“Congratulations on the pope named Francis!” the man said.
“Thank you,” Father Paul replied.
The bells of St. Francis rang as volunteers began distributing rolls and pastries and juice on this block where the Franciscans have long made Francis a very good name indeed. A pair of urns dispensed coffee and the man in the knit cap raised a steaming Styrofoam cup.
“New Pope Francis, this is for you!” he exclaimed. “I drink unto you!”
Father Paul allowed that he did not know much about the new pope.
“I was on the Internet last night,” the priest said. “He’s got a good rep.”
Father Paul was as excited as any Franciscan would be that the new pope had not only taken the name but had even as a cardinal lived in the simple and humble way of the original Francis, eschewing a palace and choosing to live in a small apartment, make his own meals, and ride public transportation.
“That’s very positive,” Father Paul said. “I love that!”
Paul was in a brown habit just like the one worn by the figure of St. Francis in the huge mosaic on the front of the church. The original Francis had been a wealthy merchant’s son in the early 13th century who outraged his father by giving away all his money to the needy, announcing that he was taking “Lady Poverty” as his bride and setting off barefoot, clad only in a rough peasant’s tunic that would become the model for the habit. He was kneeling to pray before a Byzantine cross in a church with crumbling walls and a partially collapsed roof when he heard what he felt sure was the voice of God.
“Rebuild my church, which is falling into ruin.”
Francis realized that the voice was commanding him to rebuild not with bricks and mortar but with spirit and faith. He soon had a following and invited one young man to accompany him as he preached the gospel. They proceeded to walk the streets among the people. The young man asked when they were going to preach the gospel.
“We just did,” Francis told him.
Eight centuries later, a smiling Father Paul was now preaching the gospel in the Franciscan way among the homeless.
“Hi, fellas,” he said.
He nodded to one of the few women, who gazed back at him from the depths of all her troubles.
“Hi, honey, how are you?” he asked.
To stand on the block of Francis as the new pope’s first dawn broke rosy at the end of the street, to see the homeless glimmered with something brighter than despair was to think that a pontiff who embraces not only the name but the spirit of Francis just might be able to rebuild the church.
Some of the faithful in St. Peter’s Square the day before are said to have been initially disappointed when the 75-year-old from Argentina stepped on the balcony as the new pope. They had hoped for a younger man with more manifest energy and charisma to imbue the church with a new spirit. They had then found themselves laughing as he joked that his fellow cardinals had gone to the ends of the earth to find a new bishop of Rome. He had followed that with an act of stirring humility in keeping with his new name, asking the crowd to pray for God to bless him before he presumed to bestow his first papal blessing on them.
Pope Francis had been demonstrating in Rome just what the Franciscans on W. 31st St. have been demonstrating anew at 7 a.m. every day. The church does not need a new spirit. It just needs the true one.
Another reason the original Francis is worth emulating is depicted in the stained glass window of the third-floor chapel in the friary adjacent to St. Francis Church. The window shows Francis crossing the battle lines in 1219 during the Fifth Crusade to meet with Sultan Malik Al-Kamil of Egypt as part of an effort to end the fighting between Christians and Muslims. The sultan might have been expected to execute Francis on the spot, but he was so taken by this humble figure of monumental faith that they developed a personal bond and mutual understanding.
Nearly eight centuries later, the friars on W. 31st St. included FDNY Chaplain Mychal Judge, who was officially recorded as the first fatality at the World Trade Center on 9/11. The church has a memorial fashioned from twin towers of steel and the block is named Father Mychal F. Judge Way.
Judge was also active with the homeless—knowing many of the street people of Manhattan by name—as well as with those suffering from AIDS. His friends were busy calling and texting each other on Monday to say how delighted he would be by this new pope’s dedication to the poor and his ministering to those with AIDS, once washing the feet of 12 victims in a hospice.
Judge would not be so happy with the new pope’s conservative views regarding such matters as gay marriage. Judge would also no doubt be troubled by allegations that the new pope had been less than courageous in confronting the military junta during Argentina’s “dirty war” in which thousands perished. But Judge was of the passionate view that by recognizing what is good in others we make it stronger. And he would undoubtedly see much good in Pope Francis.
The magic of that name was never more manifest than when the homeless man in the knit cap on the breadline smiled at Father Paul and raised his steaming coffee in a toast.
“Francis!” he said.