Pope Francis breezed through New York City on Friday, tackling global concerns such as nuclear weapons and climate change, but reserving his most impassioned words for ordinary people whose daily struggles are worsened by elites’ pursuit of “a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity.”
Francis won over many New Yorkers with the message he espoused from the halls of the United Nations to the corridors of a Harlem grade school: society cannot progress if the poor and vulnerable are left behind. He doubled down on that point when speaking before the powerful diplomats at the United Nations, which marks its 70th anniversary in a year of open-ended conflicts – he specifically mentioned Sudan, Syria and Ukraine – and the worst refugee crisis since World War II.
He endorsed the Iran nuclear deal as “proof of the potential of political good will,” but stayed away from specifics and prescriptions for other crises and spoke more broadly of what he described as the moral obligations shouldered by world leaders. He urged nations to work together to combat violent extremism, drug trafficking and poverty. And he said “solemn commitments” weren’t enough to save the environment – a stern lecture weeks before an international climate change summit in Paris.
“Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights and the environment,” Francis told U.N. delegates, speaking in his native Spanish. He added that the world’s poorest are cast off by the powerful and suffer unjustly because of “today’s widespread and quietly growing culture of waste.”
He’s better than the other popes. When he talks, like, you can tell he has a good heart.
Camilla Espinosa, 11
The 78-year-old pontiff underlined his focus on society’s unsung by making his first public remarks at the United Nations not in the vast General Assembly room where he would later address the assembled ambassadors, but to the rank-and-file U.N. staff members whom he called “the backbone” of the international operation. Francis praised the “translators and interpreters, cleaners and cooks, maintenance and security personnel,” with special thanks for those who handled the complex logistics behind his trip.
Immediately after his United Nations stop, Francis headed to the 9/11 memorial site, where nearly 3,000 were killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In a moment of quiet reflection on a chaotic day, the pope gazed at the pool where the twin towers once stood and offered silent prayers. With three New York City mayors and invited survivors and victims’ families looking on, Francis laid a white flower on the wall in honor of the dead.
Moments later, flanked by a Muslim imam and a Jewish rabbi, the pope led an interfaith ceremony for peace that left several participants and audience members in tears.
“We ask you, in your compassion, to bring healing to those who, because of their presence here 14 years ago, continue to suffer from injuries and illness. Heal, too, the pain of still-grieving families and all who lost loved ones in this tragedy,” Francis said in his prayer of remembrance. “Give them strength to continue their lives with courage and hope.”
As the pope spoke at Ground Zero, tens of thousands of New Yorkers already were positioning themselves for glimpses of him at other venues.
Traffic was sealed off around the Our Lady Queen of Angels, a century-old school in East Harlem whose student body is 70 percent Hispanic and 22 percent African American.
Students shrieked as if a rock star were in their midst as the pope arrived at the Catholic school. They snapped photos with their smartphones and chanted “Holy Father, we love you!” TV cameras caught one girl screaming, “He touched my hand!”
Inside the school, uniformed students rose to greet the pontiff with a song. Francis bobbed his head to the music and even pretended to conduct, urging the kids to raise their voices.
After praying together, the pope placed his hand on children’s heads as they explained, some in Spanish, others in English, their environmental projects such as solar panels.
Some 80,000 ticket-holders converged in and around Central Park along the route the pope’s motorcade would take Friday evening.
He touched my hand!
And lines seemed interminable to get into Madison Square Garden, where the pope was scheduled to give an evening Mass after stars such as Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Hudson performed for the crowds.
Despite some grumbling over the traffic restrictions, a festive air prevailed, with the pope’s face peering out from T-shirts, mugs and other tchotchkes for sale around town. The notorious New York Post tabloid even changed its name in honor of the pontiff – it was “New York Pope” for the day, with a bold black headline that said, simply, “Heavenly!”
Some Francis fans who didn’t score tickets to his public appearances managed to get the city’s most-coveted selfie another way: by heading to Madame Tussaud’s wax museum in Times Square. Museum staff had hauled wax pope from an inside foyer to the sidewalk outside and allowed throngs of people, tourists and New Yorkers alike to take free photos with him.
In line for her turn, Maria Espinosa straightened her twin daughters’ sequined hair bows and used her older daughter, Camilla, as a translator as she described in Spanish how much she appreciated Francis’ direct connection with common people. Camilla, 11, translated for a bit and then cut her mom off to give her own analysis.
“He’s better than the other popes,” she said. “When he talks, like, you can tell he has a good heart.”