Since last week, New Yorkers and tourists in Midtown Manhattan have been gazing up at a smiling Pope Francis at one of New York’s busiest intersections. The 225-foot tall hand-painted billboard welcomes the pope, who will be in New York, Sept. 24-26.
The welcoming message is located at the corner of Eighth Avenue and 34th Street in Manhattan, near Madison Square Garden, where the pope will celebrate Mass on Sept. 25. It was commissioned by DeSales Media Group, the communications and technology arm of the Diocese of Brooklyn and parent company of The Tablet, Nuestra Voz and NET-TV.
The mural has been attracting the attention of workers and people passing by.
“As a tourist, I think it is fantastic. I am Catholic so I am happy to see them doing that mural,” said Chilean Lorena Quezada. “It is impressive … I think the pope is going to like it.”
New Yorker Charles Wickliffe said the mural made people think about religion and God.
“It is nice that (Pope Francis) is coming to Madison Square Garden and that people are putting his picture (on the billboard) instead of putting pictures of cars,” he said. “I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say.”
Designed by Israel Ochoa of DeSales Media, the mural showcases a photo of Pope Francis waving to a crowd, taken by Giulio Napolitano.
“This is our way to say ‘welcome’ and evangelize in the heart of this culturally-diverse city,” said Msgr. Kieran Harrington, chairman of DeSales Media Group. “I am convinced that Pope Francis’ apostolic visit will impact everyone, touching hearts across different backgrounds and beliefs.”
The upcoming visit is already making an impression. Adina Settles, who works in the area, recognized Pope Francis’ face when the painters begun to color the mural. She said she hopes his presence inspires people to move beyond politics.
“I’ve lived long enough to see a pope that is connected with the rest of the world,” she said. “I think the mural is positive, is uplifting, is hopeful. It’s everything we need right now.”
For Rosbel Santana, a Catholic who lives in Newark, N.J., and attends a Catholic Charismatic Renewal group with her mother, the pope’s visit could be a chance for people to hear his message and “change their lives for the better.”
For the four people painting the billboard, working on the likeness of the pope has been a blessing, said Van Hecht-Nielsen, a parishioner of St. John the Evangelist church in Loveland, Co.
“My wife (Ashlee) and I were very excited. We are both converts to the faith,” he said, adding that he is father to seven children. “It is wonderful to see the way the pope is touching the world.”
Hecht-Nielsen, who has more than 10 years of experience painting billboards across the country, said he was happy to create an ad that has a deeper meaning.
“People are getting excited and it is a blessing because I think it sends a message to the community,” he said.
Thiara Zapata said she likes to admire the artwork on her way to work and thought the mural “helps to alert people about the pope in the U.S.”
Raising awareness about the papal visit might still be needed, according to a survey the Public Religion Research Institute released in August. The survey found that only 47 percent of respondents knew the pope was visiting the U.S. – 69 percent of Catholic respondents, however, had heard the pope is coming.
The mural helped Francisco Alejandro, from Columbus, Ohio, to find out about the papal visit. “I would like to learn more about it, so we can visit (New York) again,” he said.
The mural includes the public hashtags #PopeInUSA and #PapaEnUSA, inviting people to engage in conversation via social media. More information can be found at www.popeinusa.com.
While people wait for the pope’s message, the artistic billboard is becoming another New York attraction, said area worker Jayanta Majumder, who has seen countless people taking pictures of the mural. He said the billboard demonstrates the freedom of speech and religion in this country – adding that while he is not a Christian, he would like to receive Pope Francis’ blessing.
“This is not only a person, he is an institution … He has crucial knowledge about Jesus’ love and the love for each other,” he said. “We are very respectful of these (religious) leaders because if they were not in the world, there would be even more fighting and chaos.”
The mural is expected to be seen by 700,00 people each week and will remain in place throughout September.