It would not be unusual in southern Florida to be familiar with the subway system of New York City. While many other cities in our country and in other parts of the world have subway systems, there is none so expansive or complicated as that of New York. This year, in particular, we have been reading a great deal about the significant problems of the subway that are being faced in terms of overcrowding, old and failing equipment, derailments and crime. Nevertheless, the system is used by millions of New Yorkers each and every day and just about every segment of humanity is represented on it. It has been stated that in New York, “You've got Donald Trump, Woody Allen, a crack addict and a regular Joe, and they're all on the same subway car." This is certainly an insightful realization of what is part of the New York City subway system as well as the intriguing diversity of humanity which is often experienced, in the words of Pope Francis, at the peripheries to which he constantly invites us.
One of the things that Pope Francis is known for when he lived in Buenos Aires was his use of public transportation and the subway system. As Cardinal of Buenos Aires he traveled the system frequently and often on a daily basis to get to his office in the city. There is a photo of the Pope riding on the subway and he does not seem to be aware that his photo was being taken. He gives the impression of being a clergyman but at the same time an ordinary citizen on his way to work. Looking slightly to his right, he appears being fully accessible but at the same time focusing on deeper things. Perhaps the atmosphere of the subway enabled Cardinal Bergoglio to reflect more upon one of his constant themes which is the need to go out to the periphery. As the subway arrived at the peripheries of his city, he also encountered the peripheries of all men and women - the rich, the poor, the homeless, the infirm, the famous, with all of their human capacities and limitations. As the future Pope went down the subway stairs below the ground, he truly was reminded of going to a periphery. As he reached his destination on the subway, he came to his destination, another periphery, always in the company of others.
Pope Francis' emphasis on the importance of going to the periphery to bring Christ has been constantly emphasized in his teaching from the very beginning of his Pontificate. Just a few days before his election as pope, Cardinal Bergoglio gave a very moving reflection to all the Cardinals who were present at the conclave to elect the new Pope. His words certainly were influential in his being considered a candidate even though at the time he would have been considered on the periphery of election as well. In these words he stated, "The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only in the geographical sense, but also to the existential peripheries; those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and of religious indifference, of thought, of all misery." How often Pope Francis has stated in his Pontificate that, "We must go forth from our comfort zone in order to reach all the peripheries in need of the light of the Gospel."
In speaking to his brother Jesuits, Pope Francis insightfully reflected, "This joy of the explicit proclamation of the Gospel – through preaching the faith and practicing justice and mercy – is that which leads the society to go to all the peripheries. The Jesuit is a servant of the joy of the Gospel." In this context, Pope Francis reminds us of a deeper periphery to which all of us must go – the periphery of our inner selves where we not only get to know ourselves, with all of our many good qualities as well as our sinful limitations, but also encounter the presence of Christ who took our human nature to Himself. Only by encountering this periphery, will we be able to go to all of the other peripheries of human need and experience to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. It is interesting that the Jesuits are known for their thirty day retreat which was inspired by their founder St. Ignatius of Loyola. On this retreat, the Jesuits are in complete silence and make several personal holy hours each day. Truly this is an experience of going to the periphery of oneself and of encountering the Lord in His living presence.
Of the many subway lines that traverse the hundreds of miles of New York City subway is the one that has gotten national fame because of a jazz piece in its honor written in 1939 by the famous Black jazz artist, Duke Ellington. The well-known piece is Take the A Train. Billy Strayhorn, another African American musician wrote the lyrics of this piece. While the song is very lively in its jazz fashion, it has a depth of meaning which may go unnoticed, unless we go to its periphery. It engagingly sings that "You must take the A Train to go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem." This jazz piece is much more than a reminder of the reality that the subway system of New York goes to the furthest peripheries of New York. Sugar Hill represented the Harlem Renaissance and was the rebirth of discovery, learning, and expansion for African Americans. Sugar Hill in Harlem sparked change in urban centers from far and wide. It discovered new ways to explore the historical experience of Black Americans and Black life in the urban north and represented the original igniting that caused the civil rights movement.
The Harlem Renaissance allowed Black Americans to focus on their past, as well as develop a unique identity for their future - a rich culture within a culture. This rebirth brought the people close to their roots and also fostered the emergence of a new culture within America. Indeed, this periphery, Sugar Hill, which was a destiny of the A Train, represented a sign of what was so needed and is so much needed today within our society. Sugar Hill became a place where the richness of Black culture was sought after and where Black and White cultures began to intermingle, share and trade. Take the A Train's lyrics, with the words, “If you miss the A Train you'll find you miss the quickest way to Harlem," remind us today of the wealth that comes to our country through the cultures and experiences of so many immigrants who may seem on the periphery of our nation but are actually what our nation is all about.
Coincidently, one of the subway lines of Buenos Aires is the A Train. Pope Francis most likely took the A Train on several occasions. Certainly, he appreciates the peripheries to which the A Train and all of the subways takes its people. While we may never ride the subway, or understandably want to, we are on a journey in this world to the peripheries of all men and women with their needs, talents, limitations, expectations and contributions. In our nation, we continue to be on a journey to support and foster our immigrant community. Only by going to the peripheries, as the Pope of the periphery invites us, especially to the periphery deep inside of ourselves, do we find the presence, the mercy and the joy of God. We can't afford to miss the quickest way to that, no matter what method of travel we take through our journey of life.
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
September 8, 2017