Saturday, 2:15 PM
By Michael Levenson, Globe Staff
NEW YORK -- An organist played through the entire scale, filling the vast nave of the Cathedral of Saint Patrick with the shrillest high notes and the biggest, deepest basses, as he tuned up the 78-year-old, 9,000-pipe organ that will serenade Pope Benedict XVI. Outside, workers on their hands and knees scrubbed the stone steps, while a newly hoisted Vatican flag fluttered in the breeze.
In New York, there was a palpable sense of excitement and anticipation today as the city geared up for the pope’s visit. Workers went into cleaning and decorating mode, wheeling ficus trees into the cathedral and washing away the last remnants of grit as they prepared for the pope to arrive Saturday morning to celebrate Mass for priests, deacons, and members of religious orders.
"You can see a lot more activity and excitement -- maybe the word is more of an awakening," said Chuck Leonard, a 65-year-old investment banker and regular parishioner at the cathedral who stopped by to say a prayer to St. Jude. "When he comes, it’s almost like a lightning bolt. It’s a very positive effect."
Margie and David Acker were among 33 pilgrims who had come from the Diocese of Savannah, Ga., to see the pope celebrate Mass on Sunday at Yankee Stadium. "We’re going to see our Papa!" Margie Acker exulted during a visit to the cathedral. "I love him. What a gift to us. He’s a shepherd for all of us -- for all denominations."
Their friend and fellow pilgrim from Georgia, Betsy Lindsay, reached into her pocketbook and produced a large ticket to the Mass, printed in gold ink and stamped with an image of the pope. "We feel like Willy Wonka," Lindsay said. "We’ve got the golden ticket."
Dick McKinney, who was visiting from Seattle, said he hoped that Benedict, who was formerly the enforcer of doctrinal fidelity at the Vatican, would inspire Catholics to more closely integrate Catholicism into their lives.
"I hope he can cause people to be stricter about the teaching," McKinney said. "I’m not confident about that, but I’m hopeful."
Leonard freely offered that he has differences with the Catholic Church and believes priests should be allowed to marry. But he echoed Mckinney’s sentiment nevertheless, saying Benedict’s arrival in New York sparked in him "an impulse to look inside," and reexamine his commitment to his faith.
Benedict has a series of events planned, including a speech to the United Nations, a visit to a seminary in Yonkers, the Mass at the cathedral and a visit to the Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side, where he will meet Jews on Friday just ahead of the Sabbath and the Passover holiday.
At the synagogue today, security was tight as guards posted at the entryway forbade anyone from going inside. But preparations were clearly underway, as a dozen workers used long-handled mops and ladders to scrub down the synagogue’s crimson awning, wash its ornate sandstone façade, and polish its bronze handrails. During a peek inside, workers were busy decorating the sanctuary with buckets of white flowers. The wooden benches were polished to a brilliant shine.
"I’ve never been so thrilled to do a job as this one," said Raymond G. Saleeby, the president of REMCO, the company that was cleaning the synagogue. "This is history."
He was outside the building, standing by his chauffeur-driven Mercedes, and watching with arms folded as his workers cleaned and then took a break to eat slices of greasy pizza on the synagogue stairs.
"I told them ‘Don’t drip!’" Saleeby said.
So what’s the secret to cleaning a building in preparation for the pope?
"We do it with a little bit of holy water," he said with a laugh.
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