Pope Francis was able to shed a bit of the formality that has marked his US trip so far, meeting with the families of 9/11 victims before an interreligious service at Ground Zero, then smiling and joking with immigrant schoolchildren at a Catholic school in East Harlem.
During the almost one-hour visit to Our Lady Queen of Angels School, Francis joked with the children, prodded them to sing louder, and willingly allowed a young girl to take his hand and guide him in using a touch screen.
As he was coming into the school, more than 250 students from other schools in East Harlem greeted him, asking him for blessings, selfies, and high fives, as they chanted, “Holy Father, we love you!”
Once inside, Francis greeted not only the students, but also groups of migrants and refugees, who gave him gifts representing their situations, such as a migrant day worker who gave the pope a white hard hat and a leather tool belt.
“Those of us who daily build New York welcome you,” he said to Francis, “and I give you a hug in the name of all of us.”
After the introductions were over, the pope delivered a short address in Spanish.
He began by apologizing to the teachers for interrupting their schedule, but after seeing the children’s reaction, he added: “You’re all happy, I know.”
Francis called schools “a second home,” saying they’re important not only for students, but also for families. “School then ends up being one big family,” he said. “One where, together with our mothers and fathers, our grandparents, our teachers and friends, we learn to help one another, to share our good qualities, to give the best of ourselves, to work as a team and to pursue our dreams.”
For the first time on his trip, Francis went off-script after telling the students that where there is joy, there is Jesus. “But, instead, who’s the one who spreads sadness, mistrust, envy, ill wishes?” he asked as he lowered the pages of his talk and looked at the students intently. “What’s his name? The devil! He always spreads sadness because he doesn’t want for us to be joyful, he doesn’t want for us to dream.”
Francis wrapped up his speech by telling the children to do their homework, saying that word in English.
“It is just a little request, but a very important one,” Francis told the kids. “Please don’t forget to pray for me, so that I can share with many people the joy of Jesus. And let us also pray so that many other people can share the joy like yours.”
After leaving the school, Francis headed to Central Park, where he was greeted by 80,000 people who had waited in line most of the day to get a glimpse of the popemobile. The motorcade lasted for about 20 minutes, with people of all ages and backgrounds swarming New York’s iconic park, holding Vatican flags and pope plush toys.
Earlier Friday, after his hour-long address to the United Nations General Assembly, Francis went to Ground Zero, in lower Manhattan, to share an interreligious prayer with representatives of many different faiths.
With former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg by his side, the pontiff met with several relatives of the first responders, who were among the nearly 3,000 people who died after two commercial airplanes struck the twin towers of the World Trade Center, causing their collapse.
During a short yet emotional service, Francis said, that the 9/11 memorial is a place where “grief is palpable,” and called the two subterranean waterfalls that commemorate the towers “a symbol of our tears.”
Beyond family members and several politicians, there were 700 religious leaders from an array of faiths in the National 9/11 Memorial and Museum, and the pope used the opportunity to call for religions to build on their common goals, trying to look beyond what divides them.
During the ceremony, Francis and local leaders of other religions, such as Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, sat in front of a slurry wall that endured the collapse, keeping the Hudson River from flooding the site.
The wall is now part of the museum, in a room four floors below ground at the concrete foundations of the original towers.
Greeting the families of the firefighters and police officers, he said, “made me see once again how acts of destruction are never impersonal, abstract, or merely material.”
“Here, amid pain and grief, we also have a palpable sense of the heroic goodness which people are capable of,” the pope said. On the day of the tragedy, “no one thought about race, nationality, neighborhoods, religion, or politics” as they helped each other.
Later that evening, Francis celebrated Mass at Madison Square Garden for 20,000 people, his last event in New York before heading to Philadelphia, the last stop in his tour of the United States.