Pope Francis celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden Friday evening, offering a challenge to urban dwellers to care for the disenfranchised who live in "deafening anonymity" amid the wealth and bustle of "our great avenues."
"God is living in our cities," he said. "The Church is living in our cities, and she wants to be like yeast in the dough."
The pope's sermon capped off a whirlwind day that included a speech before the United Nations, a multi-faith service at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, a visit with Harlem school children and a ride through Central Park before adoring and emotional crowds. As he did in many part of his visit, Pope Francis stopped to bless children with special needs at the Garden.
In his sermon before 18,000 gathered at the arena, the pontiff praised big cities as "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," the pope said, according to his prepared homily provided by the church. (Read the homily in full.)
But the pope also warned that cities can create seemingly invisible second-class citizens.
"They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly," Pope Francis said. "These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity."
But despite the "empty connections" and "sensationalist routines" of urban life, the pope said, "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."
Near the conclusion of the mass, Cardinal Timothy Dolan thanked Pope Francis and the pontiff received a roaring standing ovation from the emotional Madison Square Garden crowd.
Before the pope's sermon at the Garden, tens of thousands of New Yorkers and spectators from across the globe greeted the pope with waves and shouts of joy as the beloved pontiff traveled through Central Park before heading for Madison Square Garden.
An estimated 80,000 people, of all ages and backgrounds, gathered, holding little Vatican flags, some gripping plush pope dolls and almost all shouting with pure joy and adoration at the sight of the popular pontiff who has electrified a city that takes everything in stride. .
“I felt elated and grateful,” said Sara Michaelis, 47, who waited hours in Central Park. “I think this pope is planting tolerance and kindness— the kind all of us are yearning to hear about.”
As thousands waiting in line to get into the park Friday afternoon, hand-wanding security teams were added to expedite the process. Eventually, NBC 4 New York crews on the ground said authorities stopped checking tickets and just ushered people in.
Johanna Yorro, 33, jumped on a subway from Ozone Park, Queens, after radiation treatment to see the pope in Central Park. Yorro has been cancer-free since June and said winning the lotto to see the pontiff was “a sign.”
“I cried, I laughed, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “It’s a sign of a second chance in life.”
Over the last two years, Yorro battled stage three cancer with countless chemo treatments, a double mastectomy and 20 radiation sessions with seven more to go. She found out she first had cancer when her son, now 2 years old, was just 13 months old.
“(The pope) is coming here now, I just finished battling cancer, and what a beautiful day it is today,” Yorro said.
Three students from Fordham university waited two hours to position themselves for the pope’s visit in Central Park. One of the teens, James Colazzo, said he was excited to see the pope because Fordham is a Jesuit school.
“He’s preaching the same values that were taught in my classroom—to be men and women for others,” Colazzo said.
The university sent out an email to all students about the pope lotto. Colazzo came as a guest after his two friends, Joseph Florio and Adam Meserve, both won tickets.
“We don’t know if we’re going to have the same type of pope again—a people’s pope.”
Earlier Friday, hundreds of students chanting "Holy father, We love you!" greeted the pope as he stopped at an elementary school in East Harlem, his third event on a busy day in the city.
A sea of young children and teenagers held out iPhones and cameras outside Lady Queen of Angels as they snapped selfies of themselves with His Holiness. Some were lucky enough to shake the hands of a smiling Francis on his way inside.
Inside the school, a group of young kids greeted the pope by singing the "Peace Prayer of St. Francis." A giant grin across his face, the pope leaned out and put his hand behind his ear, encouraging the chorus to sing louder.
They obliged with grins of their own. The pope then led them in prayer.
He also got a bit of a tech lesson. The pontiff was looking at projects that students from various schools had prepared for his visit. One had a touch screen with information about the environment.
As he examined it, Kayla Osborne asked him if he would like to try it.
Smiling, Francis had a go at moving items around on the screen. Kayla took his hand to help him. But the pope — who has said he hasn't watched TV in decades and doesn't know how to use a computer — couldn't quite get the hang of it.
So she did it for him, and then clicked to a screen that said, "We also thank God for the gift of having you as our pope."
In a brief speech, Francis invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and told the children, many of whom are black and Latino, that King's dream of equal opportunity was a hope that children like them could get an education.
The pope says "it is beautiful to have dreams" and to be able to fight for them. He also gave them a homework assignment: to pray for him.
In the morning, Francis delivered an empowering, somber call for unity at the 9/11 Memorial before an interfaith group of 400 representatives and nearly two dozen relatives of victims of the terror attacks.
Friday's jam-packed schedule kicked off with the first papal address to the United Nations' General Assembly in which the pope declared there is a "right of the environment" and that mankind has no authority to abuse it, telling more than 100 world leaders and diplomats that urgent action is needed to halt the destruction of God's creation.
He leaves the city on Saturday for Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love. Full coverage on NBCNewYork.com and Weekend Today in New York.