Lolita Ocampo, 67, told her friends back home in California she was flying to New York for a date. Knowing many others would also be there, the retired nurse made sure she arrived early, hours before he was expected to show up.
When he did, just shortly after 6:30 p.m. Thursday for a vespers service at St. Patrick's Cathedral, the thousands of onlookers thronging the sidewalks of Fifth Avenue roared. Many of them waved yellow-and-white Vatican City flags sold on the streets—all of them jostling for a glimpse of the man affectionately dubbed "the people’s pope."
"He has a heart as big as the moon," said Ocampo, a Filipino-American Catholic who hoped she might get an impromptu kiss from Pope Francis as his motorcade went by.
Francis’ two-day visit to New York has generated much excitement in the city as the pontiff begins a packed schedule Friday, which includes an address to the United Nations General Assembly, an interfaith service at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, and a mass in the evening at Madison Square Garden.
Among the many who came out to welcome the pope to New York on Thursday were people with roots in Asia--some of them Catholics hoping for the pope’s blessing, some of them just curious about the fanfare for a pontiff who has inspired so many around the world.
“I wish he could take Catholicism and religion and allow everyone in the world to be excited about it and about Christianity."
Chona Suico, who went to nursing school with Ocampo in the Philippines during the 1960s, said that one of Pope Francis’ most endearing qualities is his compassion for everyone. Asked what she would do when the pope drove by in his Fiat 500, she said, “I’m going to scream. I’m going to say, ‘Holy Father, bless us.’”
Ocampo noted there was a special bond between the Filipino Catholic community and Pope Francis, who visited the Philippines in January in part to comfort families of the 6,300 victims killed by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. Roughly eight in 10 Filipinos are Catholic, according to the Pew Research Center, and nearly 88 percent of Filipinos view the pope favorably.
Noel Digan is one of those Filipinos. Hoping to see the pope drive by, Digan, who lives on the East Side, left work early Thursday afternoon to grab a spot close to the New York Police Department metal barricades set up along Fifth Avenue. Digan, a Methodist, recalled the day St. John Paul II visited his college in the Philippines, back in 1981, and the excitement that ensued.
But this time was different with Pope Francis, he said. “He’s real,” Digan said.
As more and more onlookers gradually filled in the sidewalk space along Fifth Avenue, between West 56th and West 57th Streets, the crowd began to cheer ebulliently over almost anything. When NYPD squad cars drove back and forth, they cheered. When a male police sergeant spoke to a female police officer, they cheered. But when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump emerged briefly from Trump Tower around 4pm and waved to the crowd, they booed. Those boos and jeers continued periodically, as Trump and three other people waited on a Trump Tower terrace for the pope to pass.
Caught in the middle of it all were tourists from Asia, including Japan and China, who were strolling along Fifth Avenue, some in tour groups, stopping to look at stores like Tiffany & Co., Louis Vuitton, Prada, and Armani.
Standing outside Trump Tower hours before Pope Francis’ arrival, Tatsuhiro Kubo, who was in from Tokyo and on vacation for two weeks, looked confused about all the hubbub. A man selling Vatican City flags for $1 managed to get him to buy one, though Kubo left shortly after.
“I’m not excited to watch this,” Kubo said.
But John Zhang, the tour guide of around a dozen Chinese tourists, said in Mandarin that if he ever had the chance to meet the pope, he would probably be so excited he wouldn’t be able to speak.
“I wish he could take Catholicism and religion and allow everyone in the world to be excited about it and about Christianity,” Zhang said.