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Pope Francis in St. Patrick's Cathedral praises women, offers prayer for Mecca victims

Pope Francis speaks during evening prayers at St.

Pope Francis speaks during evening prayers at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Credit: Getty Images / Robert Deutsch

In his first address to adoring worshippers in New York City, Pope Francis commended the strength of religious women, acknowledged the blight of the church's sex abuse scandal and spoke of gratitude and hard work following evening prayers at St. Patrick's Cathedral in midtown Manhattan.

"What would the church be without you?" the pope said in translated remarks aimed at "the religious women of the United States," whom he called "Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel."

His grateful remarks in praise of women met with wide applause. But the pontiff also touched on the clergy sex abuse scandal as a point of shame for the church, as he has at other events in the United States.

"I know that, as a presbyterate in the midst of God's people, you suffered greatly in the not distant past by having to bear the shame of some of your brothers who harmed and scandalized the Church in the most vulnerable of her members," Francis said, adding that he stood with those who had "come forth from the great tribulation."

His address -- which delighted admirers used to hearing something fresh and different every time the Francis speaks -- capped a day full of anticipation as thousands of New Yorkers lined up on Fifth Avenue or waited hours with their tickets outside the recently renovated cathedral to be in the presence of the pope.

Before he began his scheduled remarks, Francis offered a prayer for the 700 Muslims killed during an annual pilgrimage to Mecca in a stampede Thursday morning.

"I unite myself with you all," the pontiff said.

Earlier, deep and soulful choral music reverberated from the walls of St. Patrick's, the seat of the New York archdiocese, as evening prayers began. The mood was serious and reflective, and the pope sat solemnly observant, presiding over his flock as many in the cathedral sang along with eyes closed.

But the mood when Francis arrived and descended from the popemobile was anything but calm. Francis stepped out of the white, open-air vehicle to the sound of clanging bells and screaming fans at the steps of St. Patrick's about 6:43 p.m., and met the applause and excitement with waves and smiles.

He was welcomed at the cathedral by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and shook hands warmly with each man. As the screams from admirers overwhelmed even the sound of cathedral bells, the pope exchanged hellos with the three dignitaries, readjusted his white cap, and greeted fans again with a wide smile and an arching wave.

Francis then shook hands with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, as he proceeded into the cathedral. As the doors shut behind him, choir and organ music took over in place of ringing bells and screaming fans on the street.

He slowly made his way into the grand doors of the cathedral and cellphones were thrust into the air and cameras flashed while Francis took his time greeting his people. He switched from left pew to right pew to bestow greetings -- and occasionally hugs and a kiss -- to worshippers.

As he made his way down the aisle, the pope bent to embrace a girl in a wheelchair wearing a pink shirt, spoke in her ear and patted her on the cheek. After the pontiff left her, the girl wiped her eyes.

He held hands, shook hands, and accepted a heaping colorful bouquet as he made his way to the looming replica of The Pieta, the statue of Christ after he was taken down from the crucifix, held in the arms of the Virgin Mary. Francis made the sign of the cross, solemnly looked up toward the statue, and moved onto the altar, where he bowed his head and prayed, then made the sign of the cross once more.

The gleaming polish of the floors reflected the soft light of the cathedral as the choir moved to a softer, slower song. Soon, the pontiff reappeared, adorned in his full papal vestments of gold, forest green and cream. In his left hand, he held a crucifix.

Before Francis' arrival, Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre took to the altar shortly before 6 p.m. after he was introduced by "Today" show co-host Matt Lauer.

Murphy, who worked for years in Rome at the Vatican, took the packed cathedral through a brief, erudite history of the Roman Catholic Church. He noted facts including that the church has had 23 popes named John, 16 named Benedict, 13 named Innocent, but only one named Francis.

"Viva el Papa Francisco!" he said in Spanish, prompting applause, then added in English: "Long live Pope Francis!"

"We in New York love you and welcome you today and always. Amen."

Worshippers had begun streaming into St. Patrick's hours earlier, some arriving as early as 2 p.m. to watch the pontiff attend the evening prayers, known to Catholics as vespers.

Before Francis' eagerly awaited arrival, ushers in formal white gloves led people into St. Patrick's while choral hymns such as "A Prayer of St. Patrick" and "Ave Maria" filtered through the holy space.

A mix of religious orders and lay people filled the historic church, and many anticipated the blessings that merely being in the presence of the world's most well-known holy figure would bring.

Among them was Bronx resident Vincent DeGregorio, who was given a ticket from Sister Oblates to the Blessed Trinity, where he has been a student, teacher and volunteer librarian.

It was the first time DeGregorio had been to the cathedral since it had been renovated.

"That the pope is here with the restoration -- it's magnificent," he said. "I hope to take home my blessing for my family because I have a very sick cousin who has cancer. I hope to take home some of that blessing for him."

Sister Helen Kearney, president of the Sisters of St. Joseph in Brentwood, had made it through heavy security and was waiting just before 3 p.m. with other religious men and women.

"I think there's a certain aura of excitement of being in Pope Francis' presence," she said.

Afternoon sun spilled through stained-glass windows onto the gleaming floors of the hallowed cathedral as they waited. Some worshippers soaked up the spirituality of the day or reflected on Francis' already pronounced legacy.

"I think it's fabulous we have a progressive pope for modern times," Lloyd Harbor resident Gregory G. Galdi said from his seat in the nave of St. Patrick's. "I'm humbled and honored to be here. It's interesting to see so many people here for the same thing. It's not for a sports event or a concert. It's spiritual."

"I think we're all here for one and the same purpose, which is to increase our faith and learn by example," Douglaston, Queens, resident Joseph M. Mattone, 84, said. "We can all improve our lifestyle to help one another."

Francis's comments reflected on what he referred to as the spirit of gratitude and the spirit of hard work.

"A grateful heart is spontaneously impelled to serve the Lord and to find expression in a life of commitment to our work," Francis said in the official Vatican translation. "Once we come to realize how much God has given us, a life of self-sacrifice, of working for him and for others, becomes a privileged way of responding to his great love."

He cautioned against allowing luxuries and comforts that could blunt the lord's call. And he spoke of finding rest in new places. "Closeness to the poor, the refugee, the immigrant, the sick, the exploited, the elderly living alone, prisoners and all God's other poor, will teach us a different way of resting, one which is more Christian and generous."

Francis also asked worshippers to stand firm and resilient in what he called an evolving pastoral landscape. "Whatever difficulties and trials you face, I ask you, like St. Peter, to be at peace and to respond to them as Christ did: He thanked the Father, took up his cross and looked forward."

After his homily, Dolan took to the pulpit and addressed Francis, and the men exchanged a warm grin and a laugh. Dolan welcomed the pope to the newly renovated St. Patrick's Cathedral: "Once you entered those famous doors on Fifth Avenue, you became an official New Yorker. But you already had a home in our hearts."

After speaking briefly about the elaborate restoration of the ornate and world-famous cathedral, he invited Francis to come back to New York again soon.

"We have seen this repair and restoration as an invitation from Jesus for the spiritual renewal of ourselves," Dolan said. "Your presence this happy evening renews all of us and provides a special blessing to us all."

The men then half-hugged, grinning, and Dolan patted Francis on the back.

Soon after, the pope headed back down the aisle out of St. Patrick's, stopping to offer his prayers for good health to Cuomo's girlfriend Sandra Lee as she battles cancer, and to Cuomo's father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, who died in January. Slowly, Francis made his way out of the church and back to the throng of fans who had stood, waiting on an electrified Fifth Avenue for his return.

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