Pope Francis plunged into the melting pot of New York on Thursday after reminding the country of its immigrant origins in the first papal speech before Congress. At an evening prayer service in St. Patrick's Cathedral, he thanked American nuns for their strength and courage in a deeply meaningful acknowledgement of their service following a yearslong Vatican crackdown.
The popular pontiff received raucous cheers upon his arrival in Manhattan. Thousands of people lined the streets leading to St. Patrick's to greet him, cheering, waving flags and adoringly chanting his name as he gestured toward them from his popemobile.
"It was more than I can could have ever expected," said Thomasina, of seeing the pontiff in person. "I never use the word awesome but it was awesome. I don’t think my life will ever be the same."
On the steps of the recently spruced up cathedral, dignitaries including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer welcomed him for an evening vespers service. Read the full text of Pope Francis' homily here.
Once inside, the pews full of U.S. priests and sisters erupted in applause when Francis told American nuns he wanted to thank them for their strength, spirit and courage and to "tell you that I love you very much."
It was the strongest expression yet of his gratitude after the Vatican under his predecessor ordered an overhaul of the largest umbrella group of U.S. sisters, accusing them of straying from church teaching. The nuns denied the charge and received an outpouring of support from American Catholics, and the crackdown ended this year, two years early, with no major changes.
As he left the cathedral, Pope Francis paused to speak with Gov. Cuomo, and then bestowed a blessing upon his girlfriend Sandra Lee and prayed for her health, a Cuomo aide said. Lee had been battling breast cancer and recently announced she's cancer-free.
Cuomo also asked the pope to pray for his late father, Mario Cuomo, according to the aide. The pope told the governor he knew of his father's passing and would say a prayer for the late governor.
The pontiff gradually made his way out of St. Patrick's, shaking hands with nuns and others, blessing a girl and a boy who was passed through the crowd by his father. Then he got in his Fiat, waved to the crowds still gathered outside and drove off.
As Francis rests ahead of a packed day, he's expected to stay at the home of the Vatican's ambassador to the United Nations, Archbishop Bernardito Auza.
On Friday, the pope will address world leaders at the United Nations, participate in an interfaith service at the Sept. 11 memorial museum at ground zero and celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden. The pope, who is making his first trip to the United States, also planned to visit a school on Friday and take a processional drive through Central Park.
When Pope Francis touched down at John F. Kennedy Airport just after 5 p.m. Thursday, throngs of supporters waved yellow flags as they clamored for a glimpse of His Holiness and cheers swept the crowd when he emerged from the plane. The pontiff waved and smiled as he met members of the group, laughing as he held up a miniature stuffed plush doll of himself and accepting a bouquet of roses.
The pope laid his hands on the forehead of Julia Buzzese, a 12-year-old girl who uses a wheelchair, She kissed his ring and he offered her a special blessing.
"It means that he's going to give me a miracle, to walk again" said Buzzese, of the St. Bernadette School in Brooklyn, crying. "I know I will walk again because of him."
A military helicopter whisked Pope Francis from JFK to the Downtown Manhattan Heliport near Wall Street, where he hopped into a Fiat hatchback, traveling in the same modest style as he did in Washington.
Francis' first trip to the city marks the first papal trip to New York since Pope Benedict XVI visited in April 2008.
The prayer service at St. Patrick's Cathedral was the only event in New York City Thursday for the pope, who spent much of the day in Washington, D.C. Standing before a rapt Congress, Pope Francis issued a ringing call to action on behalf of immigrants, urging lawmakers to embrace "the stranger in our midst" as he became the first pontiff in history to address a joint meeting at the U.S. Capitol.
He was welcomed enthusiastically to a House chamber packed with Supreme Court justices, Cabinet officials, and lawmakers of both parties, uniting the bickering factions as all stood to cheer his arrival.
The sergeant at arms intoned "Mr. Speaker, the pope of the Holy See," and Francis made his way up the center aisle in his white robes, moving slowly as lawmakers applauded, some inclining their heads in bows.
After the speech, he appeared on a Capitol balcony and briefly addressed a cheering crowd of thousands below on the lawn and the Mall beyond. "Buenos dias," he called out, and the crowd thundered its response.
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Tens of thousands of New Yorkers and spectators across the country are expected to crowd Central Park Friday for a chance to see the pontiff, who will lead a procession through the iconic grounds before celebrating Mass at Madison Square Garden in the evening. Earlier in the day, he will deliver an address to the United Nations, visit the Sept. 11 Memorial and Museum in Lower Manhattan and make a trip to a Harlem school.