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Pope Francis captures hearts of thousands of New Yorkers in historic sweep across Manhattan

Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he

Pope Francis waves to the faithful as he rides through Central Park in Manhattan on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Pope Francis swept across Manhattan Friday -- at every turn capturing the hearts of thousands of New Yorkers who waited hours for a moment in his presence.

The pontiff visited the "hallowed ground" where the Twin Towers once stood and spoke to everyone from world leaders to schoolchildren on issues central to his papacy: the health of the planet, the plight of the poor, the quest for global peace.

Everywhere he went, Francis displayed his gentle manner, embracing children and giving countless blessings, all while wearing a beatific smile.

More than 80,000 people filled Central Park to watch him pass by in an open-air popemobile; another 20,000 wildly applauded his appearance at an evening Mass at a packed Madison Square Garden.

It was his only full day in New York, part of a nine-day visit to Cuba and the United States that ends this weekend in Philadelphia.

Speaking at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum before a ceremony that included leaders from many faiths, Francis referred to the "palpable" grief he felt.

The pope paused to offer prayers and reflect on the heroism of those who responded to the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil.

"It is a source of great hope that in this place of sorrow and remembrance I can join with leaders representing the many religious traditions which enrich the life of this great city," he said, speaking in front of a slurry wall that held the Hudson River back from the site after the towers were destroyed in 2001.

"I trust that our presence together will be a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace and justice in this community and throughout the world," he said.

Recognizing NY's loss

Francis is the first pope to visit the memorial, which opened in May 2014 and honors the memories of the people who lost their lives in the attack.

Shortly before the service, Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan accompanied the pope along the border of one of the memorial pools, where Francis placed a white rose on one of the slabs containing the names of the victims.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gave Francis a cross of steel forged from the remains of the World Trade Center.

Cuomo said Francis blessed the governor's longtime girlfriend, Sandra Lee, who just recovered from breast cancer, and his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who died in January.

"It's really given me a sense of peace I haven't had in months," Cuomo said later.

The event was a portrait of harmony, with a rabbi and an imam alternating voices in a peace prayer, followed by Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Christian and Muslim chants and prayers.

Sean Passananti -- whose father, Horace, 55, grew up in Uniondale and died in the north tower -- said the pope's visit carried special meaning for a site infused with such horror.

"I'm a Catholic, and it's a very special day to have the pope come here and recognize this memorial site," he said. "Almost 3,000 people died here. It was evil, pure evil on this day -- and the pope represents the opposite."

Anna and Dominick Florentino of Malverne, who lost a nephew in the attacks, stood at a barricade in lower Manhattan before the pope arrived, hoping to touch the pope when he arrived at Ground Zero.

Anna Florentino said it was her first visit to the memorial. "I got the courage now that the pope is coming," she said. "I was afraid of my own emotions."

The Florentinos, each 70 years old, said their nephew, electrician Charles Lucania, 34, of East Atlantic Beach was killed when the south tower came down. And their son, Christopher Florentino, 44, has cancer that is in remission, they said.

"I'm just hoping the pope has a blessing for both of them," she said.

World leaders and children

The Argentine pontiff started his day by addressing the 70th annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in a wide-ranging speech connecting the world's ills -- especially poverty and human suffering -- with environmental destruction.

Repeatedly citing his groundbreaking environmental encyclical "Laudato Si," released this year, Francis spoke of the interdependency of humanity and the environment, and said the poor suffer the most from the abuse of the world.

"The ecological crisis, and the large-scale destruction of biodiversity, can threaten the very existence of the human species," he said, calling it the "baneful consequences of an irresponsible mismanagement of the global economy, guided only by ambition for wealth and power."

Francis went on to connect other societal scourges with environmental destruction -- including war, which he defined as the "negation of all rights and a dramatic assault on the environment."

He said there is an "urgent need to work for a world free of nuclear weapons," and referred to the "painful situation" in the Middle East, North Africa and other areas, where Christians and those of different faiths "have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their cultural and religious heritage, their houses and property."

Although other popes have addressed the 193-member body, Francis is the first to come at its opening, three days before the official start of the General Debate, in which leaders outline their vision for the UN for the year.

Friday afternoon, Francis visited Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem, where he spent several minutes walking up and down a sidewalk crowded with schoolchildren -- shaking their hands, blessing them and posing for pictures.

Inside the school, children sang "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace" -- quietly at first, but with increasing enthusiasm after Francis joked that their energy seemed to be flagging and pantomimed going to sleep.

When one child told him he also was from Argentina, Francis' eyes widened, and he gave the boy a thumbs-up. Later, he beamed again when a student presented him a blue soccer ball.

Meeting the masses

Leaving the school, Francis next went to Central Park, where he rode in his popemobile -- a white Jeep Wrangler -- while waving to vast crowds lining West Drive, cellphone cameras at the ready.

Norma Duncklee, 46, a teacher from Seaford, had a ticket to get into the park, but the security lines were so long that she gave up and stood at Columbus Circle instead.

"There he is!" she shouted as the popemobile made its way around the southern tip of the park.

"I got a little glimpse -- twice," she said afterward. "It was great. It was amazing. It was all worth it."

Olivia Alaimo, 67, of Syosset took the day off from work so she could get up at 6:30 a.m. to travel to Central Park for a glimpse of Francis.

"He's very kind and humble. Everybody calls him 'the people's pope,' " she said of Francis. "He can give a strong message but make it gentle."

The pope capped his trip to New York with a Mass Friday evening at Madison Square Garden, where celebrities including Gloria Estefan and Harry Connick Jr. sang to the crowd eagerly awaiting Francis' appearance.

In his homily, Francis praised the vibrancy of New York, but cautioned worshippers against falling victim to the impersonal nature of big cities by failing to see the needy among them.

"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."

He reminded the crowd that Jesus "still walks our streets," and that he urged his disciples to do the same.

"He urges them to go out and meet others where they really are, not where we think they should be," Francis said. "Go out to others and share the good news that God, our Father, walks at our side. He frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness and selfishness, and brings us to the school of encounter."

Francis leaves New York Saturday morning, flying to Philadelphia, where a two-day visit includes attending the World Meeting of Families. He returns to Rome Sunday night.

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