NEW YORK — The sports and entertainment center dubbed “the world’s most famous arena” will be transformed into a house of religious worship Friday night as Pope Francis celebrates a Mass that will be watched by millions across the U.S. and around the world.
Tens of thousands of Roman Catholic faithful lucky enough to get tickets to attend the 6 p.m. liturgy in person will first have to endure tight security, hours of waiting and even some entertainment as Gloria Estefan, Kelli O’Hara, Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Hudson and other musicians will perform before the pontiff arrives.
Robert Niehaus, 60, a private equity executive and longtime church donor and student mentor, is one of the nine worshippers chosen to bring the traditional gifts of wine, water and communion wafers to the altar specially built for the Mass by young men from a program that aids court-involved youth. He called the event “one of the high points of my life.”
“It’s a great honor just to be at a Mass with the pope, and bringing up the gifts is a special honor,” Niehaus said.
The joyful liturgy, officially celebrated “for the preservation of peace and justice,” will cap a whirlwind first full day for the pope in New York City following three days of events in Washington, including the first-ever papal address to a joint session of Congress. The trip is Francis’ first to the U.S.
Before arriving at the famed midtown arena on Manhattan’s West Side, the pope addressed the United Nations general assembly and held a multi-faith service at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum site of the 2001 terror attacks. Later, he will meet with Catholic students at an East Harlem school and wave to tens of thousands of greeters crowding Central Park for a glimpse of the pontiff riding in the white “popemobile” — a Jeep Wrangler partly outfitted with bullet-proof glass.
The pope’s visit comes amid a dwindling number of priests and other members of religious orders in New York and many areas across the U.S. Continuing a decades-long slide, regular Sunday Mass attendance has fallen in many parishes.
In recent years, those trends prompted the closing or merging of dozens of New York-area parish churches and the shuttering of many parochial schools, the largest reorganization in the archdiocese’s history. The moves angered many parishioners.
After Friday evening’s Mass, Pope Francis will spend a second night at the diplomatic residence of the papal nuncio, a five-story townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He will then leave New York on Saturday morning and travel to Philadelphia, the final stop of his U.S. visit.
In Philadelphia, he will visit the World Meeting of Families, a gathering started in Rome by Pope Saint John Paul II in 1994 to strengthen the bonds and importance of family members. Held once every three years, the gathering will include an outdoor papal Mass on Sunday expected to be attended by hundreds of thousands.
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