By Camber Carpenter
93,000 people applied for a free ticket to see Pope Francis roll through Central Park on September 25, 2015. 40,000 people received one. I, a Methodist educated at a Lutheran school, won two tickets to see the leader of the Catholic Church! It was a day of rejoicing for all, except for 53,000 disappointed Catholics.
September 25, 2015, really started like any other day. I ate some cereal. I rode on the subway. I auditioned for the role of a prostitute with a heart of gold for a student film. Everything seemed normal, until I neared Central Park, where the angry energy of New York City was tinged with palpable holiness. I sat on a bench, both to wait for my pope partner and to marvel at New Yorkers being explicitly nice to each other.
If you paid close attention in the first paragraph, you probably noticed that I had won two tickets to see the pope. I could have been a bad person and sold my other ticket on eBay for $500, like some people did. However, that did not seem very pope-like, so I decided to give it to a friend. Choosing a worthy companion with whom to see the pope proved difficult. First of all, it had to be someone who would care. I didn’t want anyone lukewarm about papal motorcades. Second of all, it had to be someone who didn’t have anything going on all afternoon on a Friday. Fortunately, as an actor, I have lots of friends who don’t have anything to do on weekday afternoons. Danielle, a musical theater lyricist and real-life Catholic, fit both requirements.
They ordered us to enter the park at 65th Street, any time between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The papal procession would process at 5 p.m. Had I been alone, I would have been first in line at 11 a.m. However, Danielle, while Catholic, seemed not to feel the same degree of urgency, so we agreed to meet at 1 p.m.
We grossly underestimated the time it would take to go through security. The line, which was twenty people across, snaked back and forth up Central Park West several times before reaching the security checkpoint. Some people broke through the fence to jump the line. The holier people present shamed the sinful line jumpers, insisting that their behavior would not please the pontiff or Jesus.
Walking in our line were vendors selling pope shirts, pope hats and pope flags. One guy had a life-size cardboard cutout of Pope Francis. There was a well-dressed couple, whose combined age was at least 170. Then near the end of the line, just before the security, was a massive pile of 2-foot long sticks. These sticks had been used for the aforementioned pope flags, but were deemed too dangerous to bring into the park. They didn’t want anyone to poke the pope.
It took nearly four hours to get to the Park. During this time, Danielle and I befriended Mark, an investment banker from Texas who used all of his vacation days to stalk the pope. He started in Washington, D.C., where he attended two events. In NYC, he waited outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral seven hours before the pope’s arrival. He had a ticket for the Central Park motorcade. The next day, he went to Philadelphia, where he followed the pope for two more appearances. Had Mark smelled bad and not been gainfully employed at Goldman Sachs, we would have thought him very strange, and would have shunned him like a leper. But since he had it together in most other ways, the pope stalking was mostly endearing and only a little bit weird.
Now Mark, Danielle and I were a triumvirate of papal excitement. We got through security and were ushered to our pen. They had separate pens in which they kept about 200 people, for reasons that would soon become clear. The triumvirate had to decide between standing on a small hill with an open view, or crowd in by the fence for a closer view. We went with the fence, so the pope’s blessing wouldn’t have to travel so far to get to our hearts.
I’ve waited until this, the near end of the most riveting article known to man, to describe the actual event of seeing the pope. The idea is that the suspense has built up and you are now nearly bursting with a similar amount of anticipation I experienced in the moments before the pope appeared.
First to come down the road was the NYPD motorcycle squad. No one cared. Then some of those black cars with flashing lights zoomed past. Again, no one cared. Then the crowd swelled, reaching up and out, shouting, “Papa!” which is Spanish for “Pope!” The pope mobile, flying by at 30 miles an hour, flashed before our eyes. Pope Francis did his best to wave at everyone—a difficult feat with huge crowds on both sides of the road. He choreographed his wave by looking to the left and waving for about 3 seconds, then turning his body to the right and waving at that side for 3 seconds.
On the whole, this pattern seems just, but for Mark, Danielle and I, it was devastating. We were on the wrong side of the wave. We saw only the back of his head. Danielle blurted out, “run!” We ran alongside Pope Francis shouting, “Papa! Papa!” while a police officer ran alongside us, shouting, “Stop running! Stop running!” I was caught in the classic dilemma of whether to obey a uniformed officer or to continue in an illegal behavior so my friends think I’m cool. I pretended to not understand English and kept running. As we reached the fence at the edge of our pen, Francis turned to our direction, shone his progressive face upon us, and waved.