UNITED NATIONS (CNS) — As the sun rose over Queens and illuminated the United Nations headquarters the morning of Sept. 25, the Vatican flag flew for the first time in the company of the flags of the member states.
The Vatican is a permanent observer at the U.N. A resolution to fly the flags of permanent observers was introduced by Palestine, the only other permanent observer, and passed Sept 10.
While the Vatican declined to co-sponsor the resolution and originally did not intend to raise its flag for the papal visit, it accepted a U.N. proposal in mid-September to raise the flag early on the day of Pope Francis’ address.
The flag was raised without ceremony at the same time other flags were raised.
The General Assembly chamber was filled to capacity for the pope’s address. In addition to seats at desks for all the delegates, an additional seat was added behind each delegate. Visiting dignitaries, including representatives of the U.S. hierarchy, filled the guest section.
In the chamber’s fourth balcony, youth groups readied a welcome for the pontiff and other participants in the opening of the General Assembly.
Christopher Dekki, the U.N. advocacy coordinator for the International Movement of Catholic Students, said Pope Francis ruffles feathers when needed to ensure that Catholic social teaching goes beyond issues generally addressed in the United States and at the United Nations.
When he speaks out on climate change and sustainable development, his moral authority bolsters the ongoing work of Catholic organizations at the U.N., according to Dekki. His group is the youth component of Pax Romana, an international Catholic lay movement.
There are 90 national movements in the Paris-based federation. At the United Nations, the group’s core work is to bring Catholic social teaching into its advocacy work on youth development and sustainable development policies.
“The role of the pope here is essential to our work. People trust him in a different way than politicians,” Rupert Heindl said. He is the youth delegate of Germany to the U.N. and leads the Movement of Catholic Agricultural and Rural Youth, or MIJARC.
“With ‘Laudato Si’,’ Pope Francis built bridges between science and religion. This is a very positive development for the Catholic Church in Europe. People take him seriously,” Heindl said. “Having the pope as a supporter makes a strong case for us when we bring our issues to political leaders at home,” he said.
Ana Cristina Moreno, international president of AIESEC, an international youth-led peace and development organization based in the Netherlands, said: “We have good hopes for the world. The pope finds what unites us and that’s beautiful.”
In welcoming Pope Francis, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon thanked him for making history by speaking for the first time at the opening of the General Assembly. Ban called the chamber “sacred space” where world leaders can speak to all people. Ban drew appreciative laughter from the cellphone-toting youth when he noted the pope’s enthusiasm for selfies with young people.
During the pope’s 45-minute address, listeners responded with applause more than 25 times. They gave him a sustained standing ovation at its conclusion.
Despite tight security near the U.N., 100 children from the religious education program at nearby Church of the Holy Family clustered along the sidewalk to wave to Pope Francis as he arrived at U.N. headquarters. Pastoral assistant and coordinator of religious education Sister Mirjam Hugens, a member of the Familia Spiritualis Opus religious community, told CNS the parish serves people from the local neighborhood and diplomatic families from around the world.
On Oct. 4, 1965, Pope Paul VI held an ecumenical meeting in the church, marking the first occasion of a reigning pope to visit a parish church in the Western Hemisphere.
From the U.N., the pope went to the 9/11 memorial for a prayer and a multireligious ceremony. He also had a brief meeting there with 20 family members of first responders who lost their lives assisting victims of the terrorist attack that brought down the World Trade Center’s towers.
His afternoon included a parade through a portion of Central Park, a visit to a Catholic school in Harlem and Mass at Madison Square Garden.
Among those who were making their way to Central Park that morning was a group of 36 students and three chaperones from Sacred Heart Academy in Hempstead, New York, an all-girls Catholic high school. They bounced down the streets of Manhattan on their way to claim a spot at ahead of the papal parade.
They cheered when asked how they were feeling in anticipation of the experience.
“The girls are very enthusiastic,” said Veronica Ticas, campus minister. “He’s such a symbol for us — of hope, of faith, of social justice. We’re just so happy to be part of this historic event.”
Samantha Nicholsen, a senior, theorized that people haven’t been this excited about a pope’s visit to America since Pope John Paul II.
“He’s got a huge vibe to him,” she said of Francis. “It’s just inspiring. It’s a sense of humility. I feel like he wouldn’t get insulted if I called him Father. He’s not just of the Vatican. He’s of the people.”
Her classmates excitedly added they were honored to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience and proud to be Catholic. “Everybody’s here for the same reason,” a student said.
Sacred Heart’s Central Park tickets were distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.
Contributing to this story was Angela Cave.