Pope Francis mixes high and low ministry during New York visit

Pope Francis places a white rose at the South Pool of the 9/11 Memorial in downtown Manhattan, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NEW YORK (AP) — Sweeping through the landmarks of America’s biggest city, Pope Francis on Friday offered comfort to 9/11 victims’ families at ground zero, warnings to world leaders at the United Nations and encouragement to schoolchildren in Harlem as he mixed the high and low ministry so characteristic of his papacy.

In the early evening, he led a jubilant parade through Central Park past a crowd of about 80,000 and celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden, usually the site of basketball games and rock concerts, but this time the scene of a solemn service celebrating New York in all its diversity.

Francis’ itinerary for his only full day in New York was packed with contrasts befitting a head of state dubbed the “slum pope” for his devotion to the poor. He moved from the corridors of power to the grit of the projects with lush Central Park in between.

He drew huge, adoring crowds while also managing to connect one-on-one with countless New Yorkers, despite extraordinarily tight security that closed off many streets and kept most spectators behind police barricades.

In his speech at the U.N., the pope decried the destruction of the environment through a “selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity.”

The environment itself has rights, and mankind has no authority to abuse them, said Francis, who hopes to spur concrete commitments at the upcoming climate-change negotiations in Paris.

He demanded immediate access for the world’s poor to adequate food, water and housing, saying they have the right to lodging, labor and land.

Although his remarks on the environment and the economy carried a message many liberals welcomed, Francis also affirmed church doctrine on abortion and sexuality.

Among other things, he called for the “absolute respect for life in all its stages,” including the unborn.

Francis’ speech, delivered in his native Spanish, received repeated rounds of applause from an audience that included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Bill and Melinda Gates, and Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousefzai, the young Pakistani activist shot and gravely wounded by the Taliban.

The ovations contrasted sharply with the moment of silent prayer during the pope’s visit later in the day to ground zero for an interfaith tribute to the Sept. 11 victims.

After praying before the waterfall pools that mark the spot where the twin towers once stood, Francis met with relatives of the 3,000 victims whose names are inscribed on the water’s edge.

Pope Francis poses for a selfie with a student as he arrives at Our Lady Queen of Angels School, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Pope Francis poses for a selfie with a student as he arrives at Our Lady Queen of Angels School, Friday, Sept. 25, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Francis’ afternoon schedule reflected the penchant of the “people’s pope” for engaging with the public, starting with a visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School, set amid public housing in the heavily Hispanic neighborhood of East Harlem.

After the morning’s deadly serious activities, the 78-year-old pope clearly perked up when he got to the Catholic school. He joked around with the children, chatted happily with them in Spanish, shook hands and posed for a few selfies. A security guard intervened when one girl gave him a big hug.

The pope – who says he hasn’t watched TV in decades and doesn’t know how to work a computer – even got a lesson in how to use a touchscreen from fourth-grader Kayla Osborne, 8.

The crowd in the gym included about 150 immigrants and refugees, some of them in the U.S. illegally.

About a half-hour before the popemobile passed through Central Park, a rainbow suddenly appeared above the crowd, which erupted in joyous “Oooohs!” and “Ahhhhhs!”

Francis smiled as he rode slowly in his open-sided Jeep past a cheering, shrieking crowd and a sea of arms holding cellphones aloft. For those lucky enough to score a ticket, there was a catch: No backpacks, no chairs and no selfie sticks.

On Saturday morning, he flies to Philadelphia for a big Vatican-sponsored rally for Catholic families. As many as 1 million people are expected for the closing Mass on Sunday, the last day of Francis’ six-day, three-city visit to the U.S.

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