Expert Exchange


The Day the Pope Came to Harlem

Dear Philanthropist,

Today I am writing to you about one aspect of Pope Francis’s visit to NYC, specifically about a stop that he made at a small elementary school in East Harlem, Our Lady Queen of Angels. This may not seem to be in keeping with our usual focus on the arts, but many times small parochial schools make music and art a higher priority than some of their public school counterparts.  

Music, whether it be chanting or a choir with organ in a great cathedral, is an inherent part of religion. Therefore, the music cannot be separated from a parochial school, where religion plays such an integral part in the curriculum. Children are immersed in music every day, both in church and at school. I remember learning and singing a round of Dona Nobis Pacem in the classroom in first grade. Every child in a Jewish School knows the sound of cantorial music. The cantor is part of their culture.

I also have a personal connection with Our Lady Queen of Angels. I actually went there for my first and second grades of elementary school. I sang in the traditional boy choir under the baton of Sister Patricia Ann. I remember peering down from the choir loft, as worshippers entered the church—just like the kids in Vienna! Not bad for a poor parish!

Pope Francis was greeted in New York City with thunderous enthusiasm because of the hope he inspires in the people of a city of such diversity. His whirlwind tour of New York was an artistic tap-dancing achievement of scheduling, as though for a film about the Pope in the Big Apple.

He was only here a day and a half. He started by speaking at the U.N.; he said Evening Prayer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and, as a grand finale, following a drive through the city, along a route where hordes of people could get a glimpse of our rock-star Pope, he gave a mass at Madison Square Garden. Then, finally home; put up your Papal feet; well done; we love you.

Now here’s the good part that happened, before the grand, grandissimo finale of the Pope’s visit, before his ride to Madison Square Garden. Pope Francis went to East Harlem to visit a grammar school of very modest means, Our Lady Queen of Angels. Somehow, the school has survived for over a hundred years in this poor community.
One might ask Pope Francis why he visited Our Lady Queen of Angels, in the middle of the hustle and bustle of his whirlwind tour of one of the greatest cities on the planet. I think Pope Francis wanted to visit a neighborhood parish school to visit the children. He wanted to see the children and their accomplishments, as well as the spectacular presentations of art, music, and computer projects they had prepared for him. I was lucky enough to see coverage of this visit on the local news. It was fantastic. The Pope loves kids.

The Pope’s visit was a big hit with the students, their teachers, and, in fact, with the entire community. The Pope was in his element at Our Lady Queen of Angels. In a way, in the middle of his insane agenda, Pope Francis needed to be there. He was at ease there. After all, these are the children he is trying to help. Of course, by being there, he blessed the entire community and restored hope. It was inspirational.

Here is my assessment of the new Pope: He is committed to driving corruption and pedophilia from the church. He is a no-nonsense guy who won’t be misdirected by the bureaucratic structures of the church that developed over centuries. No bureaucratic, theological entrapment for Pope Francis.

Also, this Pope is dedicated to poor people. He is dedicated to children, how refreshing. Harlem was the one place on his agenda where he could clearly illustrate his new direction for the church.

I was struck by the fact that when Pope Francis spoke at Our Lady Queen of Angels, he addressed the children directly; he looked at them; he made eye contact with them. I noticed that when the Pope spoke, he was only speaking to the children. Everyone else in the room and the cameras were invited to eavesdrop.

He told the children that he understood how hard it is to make new friends in a new country: “They tell me that one of the nice things about this school is that some of its students come from other places, even from other countries. That is nice! Even though I know that it is not easy to have to move and find a new home, new neighbors, and new friends. It is not easy. At the beginning it can be hard, right? Often you have to learn a new language, adjust to a new culture, even a new climate. There is so much to learn! And not just at school.”

During his talk to the children, who were so attentive, Pope Francis said a number of times, “Dream to live a life of joy.”

Music is not woven into the American school system; it is an adjunct. In the public sector, music is a line item in the annual budget. As important as it may be, though, during times of money shortages, music and art are the first to go. There are organizations that strive to provide music programs for kids, regardless of where they go to school. Two examples are InterSchool Orchestras of New York, and Young People’s Chorus. There is even an organization that gives pianos to schools, Sing for Hope. All together, these only touch the tip of the iceberg, leaving many children without music education. Wealthy schools have great Music programs; poor schools do not. It is a perfect opportunity for a philanthropist to have an immediate and long-lasting impact, by supporting a music program in a school.

Music is life-enhancing, for performers and listeners alike. It can be a way to put Pope Francis’ words into action: “Dream to live a life of joy.”

Copyright (c) 2016 Clemente D’Alessio.

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