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His Holiness and Hizzoner: A New Yorker's Dream

Antoine Mekary

Max Lindenman - published on 09/23/15

Gotham is used to strong personalities

Pope Francis has spoken constantly of wanting to build a “culture of encounter,” where the City of God and the Earthly City are in constant collision. When he sets foot in the Big Apple, he will be visiting the earthliest city on earth. It’s a shame he’ll be doing it long after that city passed from the care of the one man capable of matching Francis quote for quote and, possibly, blowing him off the stage.

New Yorkers will already have guessed his name: Edward Irving Koch, who served New York as mayor from 1978 through 1989. For a man so self-satisfied and so profane, in every sense of the word — he sometimes dropped f-bombs by way of informing reporters he’d grown weary of their questions — he had a lot in common with the current pope.

As sons of immigrants and sons of cities — Buenos Aires for Francis, Newark, New Jersey for Koch — both men were born into the culture of encounter, and both lived it to the hilt. Presenting themselves as men of the people, they rode the subway to work. In hands-on, somewhat meddling style, both undertook programs of reform and retrenchment, draining their respective bureaucracies of superfluous jobs.

Through their efforts, Koch and Francis joined the brotherhood of men who have forced new life into the spheres entrusted them. In 1977, when Koch was first elected mayor, the city’s bureaucracy was swollen, its finances in ruins, and many of its neighborhoods crumbling. By the time Francis was elected pope, the Church, already divided internally, had taken a decade of beatings from the media for the outbreak of priestly pedophilia that had spiked in the 1970s and 1980s. Koch’s reforms pulled the city back into the black, Francis has pushed the Church back into the headlines on something like its own terms.

Bringing new life into anything requires force, and neither of these men, their feet so well used to concrete, has ever been shy about using it. When Francis feels like provoking or confronting, he relies on his turn for simile and metaphor — in his eyes, the world resembles “an immense pile of filth,” and Europe “a grandmother.” Koch, on the other hand, went straight for the jugular. Once, when presiding at the grand opening of a Brooklyn shopping mall, he overheard hecklers shouting, “We want John Lindsay [one of New York’s previous mayors] back!” Koch demanded a show of hands — how many in the audience preferred John Lindsay to him? Once hands were raised, Koch bellowed back, “DUMMIES!”

At times, both men punched down. Argentine Jesuits who served under the future Francis when he was superior general recall him berating subordinates publicly. One evening, several years before becoming mayor, Koch had a man arrested for begging for a quarter in a manner he thought too aggressive. Of his managerial style in those days, Francis has admitted, “I wasn’t like [child saint] Blessed Imelda.” Unrepentant, Koch bragged, “I’m not the type to get ulcers. I give them.”

Of course, in many respects, Koch was about as un-Francis-like as it’s possible for a person to be. Buenos Aires street life taught Francis to value the wisdom of the average Joselito — Argentine Catholics call this “theology of the people.” Where the people were concerned, Koch was more inclined to dictate, in Pete Hamill’s words, like “an irritated school principal.”

Francis made headlines (and created persistent misunderstandings) when he went on record stating that gays should not be marginalized. Many gay New Yorkers of a certain age remain convinced that Koch’s sluggish response to the AIDS epidemic pushed those infected with the virus even further toward the margins. On Koch’s death two years ago, Richard Kim wrote, “God bless his surely weary soul. I won’t.”

In other ways, however, Koch looks like the practical rebuttal to Francis. A pope is free to speak in favor of a Church “for the poor,” but a mayor has to address the poor’s existential concerns on a limited budget. (People understand,” he once said, “that being told to do good things when you can’t afford them is not doing good things.”) Nevertheless, Koch did launch a program that succeeded, despite a slow start, in building or renovating 100,000 housing units affordable to lower and middle-income New Yorkers. It’s all very well for Francis to encourage World Youth Day revelers to “make a mess” in the Lord’s name, but Koch cleaned up literal messes through his dogged and long-overdue campaign against graffiti. Francis has spoken movingly in favor of the Church “going into the street,” but Koch had to impose order there.

Koch was a mainly non-observant Jew, but in one press conference, he proved he had a firm grasp of some theological basics. Referring to his political ally Queens Borough President Donald Manes, who stood accused of extortion, Koch told the press: “There’s been corruption. . .since Adam and Eve and the two gorillas who came before them.”

From such a beginning, who knows where an encounter between him and Francis might have led?

Max Lindenman is a freelance writer based in Phoenix. He blogs at Diary of A Wimpy Catholic.

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Pope Francis
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