NEW YORK — One night only: Pope Francis at Madison Square Garden.
Speaking from a specially crafted wooden lectern, Francis used his sermon in Spanish to celebrate the strength of religious faith in New York and other urban areas.
“God lives in our cities. The church lives in our cities,” said the pope, prompting applause from an estimated 20,000 congregants.
“The city that works and walks in smog has seen a great light,” he added, drawing laughter as he referred to Isaiah’s biblical prophesy of Jesus’ birth.
Invoking his concern for the poor, the refugee, the immigrant. Francis also reminded the crowd to help those who lack access to the riches found in cities.
Thousands of anxious visitors had to cram through security checkpoints to get into the sports and entertainment center dubbed “the world’s most famous arena” for the pope’s 6 p.m. address.
Getting into the Mass, impossible for those who lacked tickets, was nearly as tough for those who held the coveted entry passes.The arena was transformed into a house of religious worship as the pontiff celebrated a Mass watched by millions across the U.S. and around the world.
Hopeful attendees stood in lines several blocks long as they waited to pass through metal detectors. The arena was still largely empty around 3:30 p.m., 90 minutes after the scheduled door-opening.
Bishop William Murphy, religious head of the Rockville Centre Diocese on New York’s Long Island, drew cheers when he told the still-sparse crowd: “Give yourselves a round of applause, you made it through all those security guys.”
The long lines and waiting times weren’t dampening enthusiasm.
“I just feel so grateful to be here today,” said Valerie Sprague, of Greenwich, Conn., taking part in the crowd’s pre-Mass recitation of the rosary, a traditional Catholic collection of prayers, as her husband, Jeff, sought a pope sweatshirt at a concession stand.
“There is such a feeling of love here among people here to honor their pope. This is so beautiful,” she said.
Those who managed to get in early were treated to a video about the Catholic Church’s sacraments on Madison Square Garden’s giant screen, and a performance by the St. Charles Borromeo Gospel Choir. Gloria Estefan, Kelli O’Hara, Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Hudson and other musicians were also scheduled to perform before the pontiff arrives.
Robert Niehaus, 60, a private equity executive and longtime church donor and student mentor, is one of nine worshippers chosen to bring the traditional gifts of wine, water and communion wafers to the altar specially built for the Mass by young men from a program that aids court-involved youth. He called the event “one of the high points of my life.”
“It’s a great honor just to be at a Mass with the pope, and bringing up the gifts is a special honor,” Niehaus said.
The joyful liturgy, officially celebrated “for the preservation of peace and justice,” will cap a whirlwind first full day for the pope in New York City following three days of events in Washington, including the first-ever papal address to a joint session of Congress. The trip is Francis’ first to the U.S.
Before he was set to arrive at the famed midtown arena on Manhattan’s West Side, the pope addressed the United Nations general assembly, held a multi-faith service at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and met with Catholic students at an East Harlem school. Later, he will wave to tens of thousands of greeters crowding Central Park for a glimpse of the pontiff riding in the white “popemobile” — a Jeep Wrangler partly outfitted with bullet-proof glass.
At Madison Square Garden, wearing a green vestment called a chasuble, the pope celebrated the Mass with a handful of similarly clad cardinals, some of the high-ranking princes of the church who selected him as head of the Holy See in 2013. Five cardinals and 33 bishops also concelebrated the Mass.
The crowd sang and prayed along as the papal Mass and its Biblical readings from Isaiah, the Psalms and the gospel evangelist St. Matthew for this one night replaced the arena’s usual headliners of Billy Joel, the New York Rangers and New York Knicks.
Latin and Spanish joined English for portions of the Mass. Readers intoned the church’s universal prayer in English, Italian, French, Mandarin and Gaelic.
The pope’s visit comes amid a dwindling number of priests and other members of religious orders in New York and many areas across the U.S. Continuing a decades-long slide, regular Sunday Mass attendance has fallen in many parishes.
In recent years, those trends prompted the closing or merging of dozens of New York-area parish churches and the shuttering of many parochial schools, the largest reorganization in the archdiocese’s history. The moves angered many parishioners.
After Friday evening’s Mass, Pope Francis will spend a second night at the diplomatic residence of the papal nuncio, a five-story townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He will then leave New York on Saturday morning and travel to Philadelphia, the final stop of his U.S. visit.
In Philadelphia, he will visit the World Meeting of Families, a gathering started in Rome by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1994 to strengthen the bonds and importance of family members. Held once every three years, the gathering will include an outdoor papal Mass on Sunday expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands.
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