NEW YORK — For one night only: Pope Francis headlined Madison Square Garden.
And he awed an estimated crowd of 20,000-plus that packed the Manhattan sports and entertainment arena, celebrating a Mass in which he used a homily in his native Spanish to celebrate religious faith in New York City and other urban areas.
"God lives in our cities. The church lives in our cities," said Francis, prompting one of three rounds of applause from congregants during the liturgy.
"The city that works and walks in smog has seen a great light," he added, prompting smiles and laughter at his re-working of Isaiah's biblical prophesy of Jesus' birth.
Repeating his often invoked concern for the poor, for refugees and for immigrants, Francis also reminded the crowd to help those who lack access to the riches found in urban centers.
"In big cities, beneath the roar of traffic, beneath 'the rapid pace of change', so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no 'right' to be there, no right to be part of the city. They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly," said the pope.
"These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity. They become part of an urban landscape which is more and more taken for granted, in our eyes, and especially in our hearts."
Many in the arena nodded agreement. And most roared approval near the end of the religious ceremony when Timothy Cardinal Dolan, head of the New York Archdiocese, thanked the pope for using his first U.S. trip to visit his five-borough "family."
After blessing the worshipers at the conclusion of the Mass, Francis smiled and offered a reminder: "Don't forget to pray for me."
The Mass capped a day in which thousands of anxious visitors waited in lines many city blocks long to pass through security checkpoints and enter the sports and entertainment center dubbed "the world's most famous arena" for the evening Mass.
David Finn, 22, from Ramsey, N.J., sits in the front row before Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York on Sept. 25, 2015. (Photo: Peter Foley, epa)
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 before Francis' arrival: "Give yourselves a round of applause, you made it through all those security guys."
The long lines and waiting times didn't dampen enthusiasm, however.
"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.
The Combined Choirs of St. Charles Borromeo sing gospel songs prior to a mass led by Pope Francis at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 25, 2015 in New York City. (Photo: Andrew Burton, AFP/Getty Images)
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.
For those who sought a dash of celebrity with solemnity, musical stars Gloria Estefan, Kelli O'Hara, Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Hudson and other musicians also performed religious-themed songs before Francis arrived.
The Garden, home of the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers, for this night was transformed into a house of religious worship as the pope celebrated a multi-language liturgy watched by millions across the U.S. and around the world.
Robert Niehaus, 60, a private equity executive and longtime church donor and student mentor, was one of nine worshippers chosen to bring the traditional gifts of wine, water and communion wafers to the altar specially built for theMass 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," said Niehaus.
The Mass, officially celebrated "for the preservation of peace and justice," followed a whirlwind first full day for the pope in New York City, making him the fourth pope to visit the U.S.
Pope Francis celebrates Mass at Madison Square Garden on September 25, 2015 in New York City. The pope is visiting New York City during a six-day tour of the United States, that included a stop in Washington D.C. and includes one in Philadelphia. (Photo: Andrew Burton, Getty Images)
Before arriving at the Garden, Francis 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 waved to hundreds of thousands of greeters who crowded Central Park for a glimpse of the pontiff riding in the white "popemobile" — a Jeep Wrangler partly outfitted with bullet-proof glass.
He spent two days earlier in the week in Washington, D.C., where he elevated Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra to sainthood and delivered the first-ever papal address to a joint session of Congress.
At the Garden, wearing a green vestment called a chasuble, the pope celebrated the Mass with five similarly clad cardinals, some of the high-ranking princes of the church who selected him as head of the Holy See in 2013. Thirty three bishops also concelebrated the Mass.
The crowd sang and prayed along as Spanish and Latin joined English for portions of the mass. Readers also intoned the church's universal prayer in English, Italian, French, Mandarin and Gaelic.
Fraancis' visit New York visit came 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 have angered many parishioners. But there were signs of only one emotion inside the arena.
"Te queremos, Papa, te queremos," — we love you, holy father — many in the crowd chanted in Spanish as the pope exited.
After Mass, Francis was scheduled to spend his second night at the diplomatic residence of the papal nuncio, a five-story townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side. He's scheduled to leave New York on Saturday morning and travel to Philadelphia, the final stop of his U.S. visit.
There, the pope will take part in 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 event will include an outdoor papal Mass on Sunday expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands.
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