Close encounters with the pontiff
Pope Francis greeted 80,000 people in Central Park last Friday.

Photo provided by Loren Christie.

Close encounters with the pontiff


BAY SHORE—Although there were representatives from nearly all of the Roman Catholic churches around Islip Town, perhaps one of the most represented at last week’s activities with Pope Francis were the parishioners and clergy of St. Patrick’s R.C. Church in Bay Shore. Many of them embraced the rare opportunity to be in the popular pontiff’s presence, and some were happy to share their stories with our readers. For most, those chance encounters were more like a spiritual experience. 

Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. began last Wednesday evening and continued until Sunday night. On Thursday, he made a historic appearance at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and delivered an unprecedented speech to both houses of Congress. Later that day, he arrived in New York and led a prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan. On Friday, he addressed the United Nations, led a multi-religious service at the 9/11 Memorial, and then greeted 80,000 people in Central Park who had won lottery tickets in order to be there. He later held Mass at Madison Square Garden before more than 20,000 people. On Saturday, he went on to Philadelphia, where he led a Papal Mass for the World Meeting of Families.

Fr. Tom Coogan, monsignor of St. Patrick’s R.C. Church in Bay Shore, attended the pope’s Mass at Madison Square Garden Friday night. Before he left for Manhattan, he noted that many of his parishioners had tickets to the Central Park assemblage and some who were survivors of Sept. 11 were also at the service at Ground Zero. He said other parishioners and clergy members from the church would be at the MSG Mass as well. In fact, one family in the parish took part in the family meeting in Philadelphia over the weekend.

“It is a thrill,” Fr. Coogan remarked about the opportunity to see the Holy Father up close. And that was especially true for this pope.

“He has a pastor’s heart and is…for the people,” he remarked, adding that he exemplified that commitment when he humbly addressed Congress in English. He said that was something he too could relate to as he often struggles to bring the gospel to his Spanish-speaking parishioners in their native language.

“It was powerful to be able to celebrate Mass with the pope. But it was just a simple Friday Mass, no frills,” said Fr. Coogan after the service, noting that it is a reflection of the person and a way he is leading the church. “It was like he just invited us to his daily prayers.”

Deacon Frank Keach had the privilege of serving as a Eucharistic minister during Friday’s Madison Square Garden Mass. He got that opportunity when the archdiocese began preparing for the pope’s visit. They asked those deacons who would be interested in serving communion during the MSG Mass to put their names into a lottery. Deacon Keach found out he was chosen a month ago. “I was surprised and ecstatic,” he said.

He and the others reported for a practice session two weeks prior to the main event and at that time, they underwent rigorous security clearance. On Friday, he arrived for the 7 p.m. Mass at 10 a.m. that day and was thrilled to find he was stationed to be on the floor of the Garden, very close to the pontiff.

“I’m not down to Earth yet. Just to see  [Pope Francis] was unbelievable. It was a very moving experience,” said Keach in an interview on Sunday.

When the pope entered the venue, Keach said the roar from the crowd was energizing. “The garden was electric that night…a place of joy,” he remarked.  “I thought, ‘This is what heaven must be like.’ It felt like the Holy Spirit was present.”

He said after the service, people told him that seeing the pope had changed their lives.

“There’s something about this pope; his closeness to the people is overwhelming,” he said, noting that his openness to everyone is what makes this pontiff so different, so special. He said he would bring the lessons he learned from that experience to his congregants.

“[Pope Francis] has softened the way rules [of the church] are enforced with people,” he said. “In our parish, people come first, our church is open to everyone,” adding that attitude is an important one for the church to adapt. “You can always shut a door, but it’s more important to open it.”

 Although Christopher Ferraro is the music director of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Lindenhurst, he is a St. Patrick’s Church parishioner. He had the remarkable opportunity to stand a few feet behind Pope Francis at the Madison Square Garden Mass. It was the chance of a lifetime that resulted from making a casual proposition to a friend, the director of music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.

“I was kidding when I asked, ‘If you happen to need a page turner [for the organist], let me know,’” Ferraro explained. “It happened that they did need one and I lucked out. I was thrilled.”

Ferraro said that the experience is one he will never forget, not only because he was an integral part of the occasion, but also that he was there with this particular pope. “From the moment he was elected pope, his reaching out to others really struck me,” he said. “I’ve been drawn to him ever since. And the fact that I was sitting just 15 feet behind him was incredible.”

Fr. Nick Onyach of Kenya, a Missionary of Hope assigned to St. Patrick’s in Bay Shore, attended the vespers (prayer ceremony) at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan the night before and was seated in the front aisle. 

“I was lucky to be able to see him [so close],” he said. “The Gospel came alive for me when we were all praying together, on the same level [as the pope].”

Fr. Onyach said he was especially happy that Pope Francis recognized the importance of the sisters of the church. “Most of [the priests] grew up being taught by nuns and we forget to be grateful to them,” he said, adding that the pope’s message to the clergy and all present that night was one of gratitude. “If we all learn to be grateful, we will learn to share.” 

Fr. Coogan reflected on all of the many interesting reactions from the experience and remarkable stories of some of the people who were there. He recounted a story about a young seminarian, an immigrant from El Salvador, who had spent some time this past summer in the parish. He noticed him at the MSG Mass and he was carrying the pope’s mitre (hat).

Danny Rivera was 13 years old when his mother gathered funds together to hire a “coyote” to smuggle him across the Mexican border and into the United States to flee from the clutches of gangs that were so prevalent in that country. 

“He got here as a penniless kid, and 12 years later he’s carrying the pope’s mitre,” said Fr. Coogan. “That’s an incredible story.”