NEW YORK — When the white golf cart suddenly entered Madison Square Garden Friday evening and started coasting past the aisles, the estimated 20,000 worshippers in attendance went wild. One might have thought Harry Connick Jr. or Jennifer Hudson was still on stage singing "How Great Thou Art" or "Hallelujah." But no, it was only Pope Francis. And the man viewed as the vicar of Christ on earth by the Catholic faithful reminded the flock of their duty to go and tell others about God and what He was doing in their city.
The pope, leader of the world's more than 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, has a noticeable effect on his flock.
Men and women scream, some cry and couples extend their newborns and toddlers toward the pontiff in hopes of receiving a blessing. No one can get the pope and his vehicle to slow down quite like children can. Francis, when he greets the faithful, seems to have a special affinity for the young and, also noticeably, for the disabled or those with medical challenges.
The avid admiration of the pope as his golf cart winded its way around the venue's floor was replaced minutes later with solemn observance of the concelebration of the mass, featuring Francis, five cardinals and 33 bishops. And after thousands of the faithful partook of the Eucharist, Francis delivered his remarks, which touched on his frequent theme of evangelism.
In his homily, the pontiff spoke on the difficulties as well as the beauties of living in a metropolis like New York City, which he acknowledged "is not always easy."
"A multicultural context presents many complex challenges," he said. "Yet big cities are a reminder of the hidden riches present in our world: in the diversity of its cultures, traditions and historical experiences. In the variety of its languages, costumes and cuisine. Big cities bring together all the different ways which we human beings have discovered to express the meaning of life, wherever we may be."
Francis also spoke about the significance of God and the people of God who live in big cities, and urged the thousands who were attentive to his every word to use the hope they have found in Jesus Christ as motivation to go out and proclaim the love, joy and presence of God in their city.
"Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city," he said. "A hope which frees us from empty 'connections,' from abstract analyses, or sensationalist routines. A hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work. A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city."
The pope concluded his remarks by drawing heavily on the prophetic announcement recorded in Isaiah 9:6, which presents Christ as "Wonderful Counselor," "Mighty God," "Everlasting Father," and "Prince of Peace."
"God is living in our cities," Francis said. "The church is living in our cities, and she wants to be like yeast in the dough. 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."
He said, finally, "'The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.' And we ourselves are witnesses of that light."
The pope's officiation of mass at Madison Square Garden on Friday was his final engagement in New York City before leaving for Philadelphia, where he was scheduled to lead several events, including mass for the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families on Sunday.
In addition to Madison Square Garden, the pontiff held services at St. Patrick's Cathedral and at Ground Zero with religious leaders of various traditions. Francis also addressed the 70th Session of the United Nations General Assembly and visited with students, teachers and other officials at Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was overseeing Francis's journey to the United States, reports that he is the fourth pope to travel to the U.S. His predecessors, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, both visited New York City during their papacies, with the latter making the journey twice (in 1979 and in 1995).
The Sept. 22-27 trip to Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia, marks Francis' first-ever visit to the U.S. since the 78-year-old Argentinian Jesuit was chosen as pope in 2013. His visit to the states was preceded by a three-day trip to Cuba, where he met with President Raul Castro, among others. Learn more about the papal visit at uspapalvisit.org.
Watch the video below to see a snippet of Pope Francis's entrance into Madison Square Garden: