Pope Francis looked out onto 20,000 faces at Madison Square Garden and asked them to shed selfishness and isolation and reach out to those in the "big city" who exist in "deafening anonymity."
Speaking from a simple plywood pulpit underneath a suspended crucifix, Francis celebrated a Mass in a venue usually reserved for sports events and concerts.
But Friday night it was transformed into a sacred place, and the pontiff used the arena as a segue into his theme, saying it was a "place synonymous with the city."
"The big cities are a reminder of the hidden presence in our world," he said, adding that they "conceal the faces of all those who don't appear to belong or are second-class citizens."
"In big cities beneath the roar of traffic, the rapid pace of change, so many faces pass by unnoticed because they have no 'right' to be there, no right to be part of the city."
They exist, he said, "in deafening anonymity."
He asked for "hope which is unafraid of involvement, which acts as a leaven wherever we happen to live and work."
But perhaps the most emotional moment in the Mass came when Cardinal Timothy Dolan rose to say that every day, Catholics pray for their pope and "Now here you are!"
The Garden went wild in a standing ovation that went on for at least a minute.
"It is clear how much we welcome you . . . how much we love you," Dolan said.
"Now you lead us in the most important and powerful act that we can do, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
"You, our Holy Father, thanks for visiting us, your family," he said.
The theme of the Mass, once again, had been the pontiff's appeal to the faithful to be roused into service for those who can't help themselves.
"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," Francis said.
He said "God is living in our cities. The church is living in our cities, and she wants to be like yeast in the dough" -- words that drew loud cheers.
He had begun the Mass in English at 6:11 p.m. with the Liturgy of the Word, a series of biblical readings punctuated with psalms. The pope sat in his green vestments, his arms folded, as choral music played. Incense was lit and a Gospel reading from Matthew was chanted.
After the pope's homily, he began the Liturgy of the Eucharist with readings and prayers in Latin, Spanish, English and other languages. He prepared the gifts, chanting alongside several other clergy members, as the congregants sang "Amen."
Minutes later, it was time for communion as 20,000 headed down the aisles to receive the blessed wafers from 400 eucharistic ministers. Francis sat quietly, his head bowed, as the choruses took turns singing.
At the end, Francis blessed the enormous crowd. "Go in peace," he said, adding: "Don't forget to pray for me."
Afterward, Eliana Perez, 29, of Queens, an assistant program director for the nonprofit Corazón Puro, was ecstatic, saying "he could have chosen another city and he chose us. It was one of those moments you get goose bumps."
Jonny Podell, 69, of Manhattan said, "My overriding take-away was just joy. There was just joy in everybody's face, joy and bliss."
Podell, who is Jewish, said: "It was my first Mass; I'll never forget it."
Elizabeth Lutis, 63, a medical doctor from Sunnyside, Queens, said of the ovation for Francis: "Everybody was up and we the people kept going and going and going. The bishops were already seated because they thought it was going to end and people just kept going."
Several thousand people had filled the Garden hours before and were treated to music by the likes of Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Hudson. Diocese of Rockville Centre Bishop William Murphy spoke about the history of the papacy.
At 5:49 p.m. Francis rolled through the aisles in a cart atop a white carpet as choral music played. He stopped to touch the head of a disabled child in the arms of his parent. The audience surged toward him, several people grabbing his arm before security whisked him away.
The Mass concluded after about 90 minutes and the mood was ebullient.
Geri Galligan, 77, of Manhattan, who said she strayed from her Catholic faith 10 to 15 years ago, said the Mass, Francis and the message renewed her. "I could return to the church."
Laura Fenick, a native of Williston Park, got her papal Mass ticket at the last minute from someone at her church.
She considered it a miracle that she was able to see the pope and said at times during the service she wept.
"It was just a holy joyfulness," said Fenick, 58, now of upstate Wallkill. "It was really miraculous, felling his presence was so powerful, so strong."
Jeanne Borruso, 54, of Franklin Square was glowing afterward. "It was unbelievable," she said. "It was such a wonderful feeling. It was history."
The administrative assistant who won a lottery for tickets at her church, said being in the pope's presence was "very moving. I'll never forget it."