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New York opens its arms, and heart, to Pope Francis

In packed day, Francis visits the powerful and the humble

Pope Francis placed a white rose at the south pool of the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan.John Minchillo/AP

NEW YORK — Pope Francis brought his campaign to stop climate change to the United Nations on Friday, calling on the largest gathering of world leaders in the body's history to recognize a "right of the environment" as part of a broader recognition of human rights and dignity.

He cast the ecological crisis as an existential threat to humanity borne of a "selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity" that left the least fortunate "to live off what is discarded."

He also urged action on drug trafficking, armed conflict, terrorism, education, inequality, and corruption — reminding the often slow-moving and politically hamstrung international body that "solemn commitments" without follow-through can ultimately do more harm than good. The UN, he said, must foster the laws and moral determination to limit the abuse of power and its accompanying "culture of exclusion."


The morning speech was the political and diplomatic highlight of a whirlwind day that had the pope traversing — and transfixing — much of Manhattan.

After the UN, Francis attended a deeply emotional interfaith service for peace at the Sept. 11 Memorial downtown. His motorcade (he traveled in a —Fiat) then took him to a Catholic School in East Harlem, where Francis bantered with schoolchildren and prayed with immigrants. After that, he rode the popemobile through Central Park, waving to thousands lining the road.

His day ended with a Mass in Madison Square Garden, where he received a prolonged standing ovation.

"He's standing beside some of the most powerful people on earth, and he makes the case for the powerless," said John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University. "He is standing literally in the face of evil, and he makes the case for good. And, standing with young people, he makes the case for hope, and ends the night praying.


"This is what a pastor does," he said.

The pope spoke to world leaders at the United Nations, urging them to wipe out global struggles.Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

The day's events were upstaged somewhat by the unexpected resignation of House Speaker John Boehner, who invited the pope to address Congress on Wednesday and who stood alongside him, weeping, as the pontiff offered a blessing to thousands gathered on the Capitol's West front lawn.

In his speech to Congress, Francis decried political polarization and partisanship, but Boehner bowed to those forces Friday, unable to put down a rebellion by a small band of conservative members. He told reporters he made the decision to resign Friday after saying his morning prayers, and he read the Prayer of St. Francis — "Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace" — to his caucus after making the announcement.

As news of Boehner's resignation began to circulate, Francis greeted UN staff members, singling out not only policy makers but also "the cleaners and cooks, maintenance and security personnel." He thanked them for their work and, as he did from the balcony of the Capitol on Wednesday, he asked believers to pray for him and nonbelievers to "wish me well."

Francis is the fourth pope to address the UN (John Paul II visited twice) and he used the opportunity to frame the issue of environmental protection as an extension of the church's concern with protecting life at every stage.

Human beings, he said, cannot exist without the natural environment, and because every creature was created by God, the natural world has intrinsic value. People, he said, are "not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it."


He specifically mentioned the international climate summit scheduled for December in Paris, a gathering that many climate activists view as a last-chance moment to prevent the worst effects of climate change, expressing confidence the meeting would produce an effective plan.

But he also urged leaders to act decisively to stop human trafficking, the marketing of human organs and tissues, the sexual exploitation of children, slave labor, and prostitution.

"We need to ensure that our institutions are truly effective in the struggle against all these scourges," the pope said.

Pope Francis celebrated a grand Mass at Madison Square Garden.Alejandra Villa/Associated Press

Following his UN speech, Francis was whisked to the 9/11 Memorial, where he prayed beside the South Pool and participated in an interfaith service with representatives of the world's major religions. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove of Park Avenue Synagogue and Imam Khalid Latif, a New York University chaplain, offered a kind of scriptural colloquy on peace, with readings from the Bible and the Koran. Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh readings followed.

Francis, his white cassock glowing against the dark concrete of a looming retaining wall of the wrecked World Trade Center, said his exchanges with families of victims before the service demonstrated "how destruction is never impersonal, it's never abstract, it's not about things.

"Above all, destruction has a face, and has a history," he said. "It is specific, it has names. The family members show us the face of pain, pain that leaves us speechless, but that screams to heaven."


But he said the solidarity and brotherhood of those who tried to save others after the attacks promised that "reconciliation and unity will prevail over hate and division." He said people of different religions should strive for peace, and embrace their differences from one another.

"Together, today, we have been invited to say no to any attempt to make us all the same and to say yes to our differences, accepting reconciliation," he said.

Zehra Naqvi, a Shia Muslim from Long Island City, said that by the time a children's choir sang, "Let There Be Peace on Earth," almost everyone in the audience was crying.

"It meant a lot to people to be, in a place where people used religion as a way to bring darkness, part of [a moment] to bring light," she said.

Pope Francis waved as his motorcade drove through Central Park.Kena Betancur/Associated Press

In the afternoon, Francis visited Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, a Catholic school whose students are mostly black and Hispanic.

Arriving in his Fiat, which has become a kind of motorized mascot for Francis, crowds waved yellow Vatican flags and chanted, "Holy Father, we love you!" The 78-year-old pontiff seemed to animate as he placed his palm on head after head, blessing them. Inside, students in neatly pressed uniforms greeted him, demonstrating projects they made for his visit. A pair of girls showed him how to move icons on a touch screen; when he looked a little bewildered, one of them grasped his sleeve and guided him.


Afterward, a motorcade across Central Park offered about 80,000 people a glimpse of the pontiff in his popemobile. Tight security prevented him from emerging.

Closing the day with the Mass at Madison Square Garden, he reflected on challenges of "living in a big city" and asked Catholics to venture out to "meet others where they really are."

In a homily delivered to 20,000 worshipers, Francis called on New Yorkers to pay attention to "the faces of all those people who don't appear to belong."

"They are the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly," the pope said. "These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity."

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at