Crowds packed Madison Square Garden last Friday night to see a rock star who has graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine—a figure important enough to boot even Billy Joel from his regularly scheduled gig at the Garden.
Like most global superstars, he goes by only one name: Francis.
The first of 266 Vicars of Christ to choose the name Francis, the pope capped off his historic trip to New York City by continuing to spread the simple message that is at the core of Church teaching: caring for and loving one’s neighbor.
In a homily delivered in Spanish in front of 20,000 of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics under his spiritual leadership, he spoke about the challenges of life in metropolises such as New York, where it can be all too easy to ignore those who live in the shadows.
“They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly,” he said.
“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.”
The theme of the city ran throughout his homily, fitting for a Mass at that served as the capstone for his whirlwind two-day visit of New York that brought him all the way from Ground Zero to Harlem.
Francis is the second pope to celebrate Mass at “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and arrived earlier than scheduled for the 6:30 p.m. service. As he made a lap of the Garden floor in a golf cart-like Popemobile, attendees snapped pictures and rushed forward for a closer glimpse.
But like any rockstar’s performance, the pope’s Mass was preceded by an opening act that consisted of musicians and Broadway stars. Jennifer Hudson, Gloria Estefan and Harry Connick Jr., among others, sang classic hymns such as “Hallelujah” and “Ave Maria.”
In between songs, the rosary was prayed in both English and Spanish, a nod to both the surging Hispanic population of the Church in New York City and the Argentine pope’s native tongue. At the same time, priests were stationed around the arena to hear confession from those in attendance.
These prelimary proceedings were described by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan as a “bit of anti-pasto” and “mini-retreat” in a video that played before the ceremonies began.
On a more practical level, however, it allowed time for people to make it through the heavy security that caused lines to form blocks away from entrances to the Garden.
With no tickets available to the general public, most were given away by local parishes through lotteries or similar methods.
A group of 40 Manhattan College students, faculty and administrators traveled down to the Mass, with both Catholics and non-Catholics among the mix.
Sahejveer Singh, a junior chemical engineering student and a Sikh, was lucky enough to receive a ticket for the event.
“I wanted to attend a mass led by Pope Francis because I believe he is a world leader beyond the Catholic church. His humble approach to the papacy makes me an admirer even though I am not Catholic.”
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, also in attendance, addressed the media moments before the pope’s arrival and spoke of a gift he had presented earlier to Francis that was crafted from steel from the destroyed World Trade Center.
“The state made a cross from that steel and we gave that to the Holy Father, which I think is especially poignant because of that 9/11 ceremony that he did this morning—that was really just magic,” Cuomo said.
“We are looking forward to this evening, but it has been a memorable, memorable two days.”
On a personal level, the governor also shared that the pope provided a blessing for his late father as well as girlfriend Sandra Lee, who has recently struggled with breast cancer.
In many ways, that personal touch has defined Francis’s papacy.
He has continually pushed for a more-inclusive Church. Throughout his visit to the United States, he has called for greater dialogue, cooperation and solidarity among citizens of the world.
“God is living in our cities. The Church is living in our cities, and she wants to be like yeast in the dough,” he said in his homily.
“She wants to relate to everyone, to stand at everyone’s side, as she proclaims the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace.”
At the same time, stories of his humility and infectious joy have won him legions of devoted followers, even non-Catholics.
Following Communion, Dolan addressed the crowd, once again thanking the Holy Father for his visit to the city.
Thunderous cheers erupted as Francis received a standing ovation rivaling, if not surpassing, that of any athlete who scored a game winning-buzzer beater on the Garden’s hardwood or ice.
Before processing out of the arena, he had one simple request for those in attendance.
“And please I ask you, don’t forget to pray for me.”