NEW YORK (AP) — 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, Francis thanked American nuns for their strength and courage in a deeply meaningful acknowledgement of their service following a years-long Vatican crackdown.
Over 40 hours in New York, Francis will address world leaders at the United Nations, participate in an interfaith service at the Sept. 11 memorial and celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden. He will visit a school in Harlem and take drive through Central Park — a whirlwind tour of the Big Apple that got off to a quintessential welcome with a high school brass band serenading him with “New York, New York,” on the airport tarmac.
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. 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.
Once inside, the pews full of U.S. priests and sisters erupted in applause when Francis told American nuns that 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 for American nuns 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.
In Washington earlier Thursday, the pope waded into bitter disputes while speaking to Congress, entreating the nation to share its immense wealth with those less fortunate. He urged Congress and the nation to abolish the death penalty, fight global warming and embrace immigrants. Lawmakers gave rousing ovations to the leader of the world’s Catholics despite obvious disagreements over some of his pleas.
After he addressed Congress, the first pontiff to do so, he underscored his message by traveling to a downtown Washington church, where he mingled with needy and homeless people, blessed their noontime meal and walked among them while they ate.
Francis wraps up his visit this weekend in Philadelphia, where he speaks in front of Independence Hall and celebrates Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway to close out a big Catholic family rally.