Seeing “A Great Light” in New York:
Attending Mass with Pope Francis

These words, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, gave hope to the Israelites during the Babylonian Captivity.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Is 9:1)

These words, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, gave hope to the Israelites during the Babylonian Captivity. Thousands of years later, they resonated powerfully with the 20,000 people gathered in Madison Square Garden for the Holy Father’s Mass for the Preservation of Peace and Justice on 25 September.

I was fortunate to attend with some of my colleagues from CNEWA. Despite long security lines, snaking almost 20 blocks through midtown Manhattan, the mood in the Garden was electric — even more so than at typical concerts or sporting events there.

After parading through Central Park, the pope arrived at about 6:00 p.m. and circled the floor of the arena twice, accompanied by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York. Mass began shortly thereafter — quite notably, ahead of schedule.

The Holy Father’s homily expanded on the first reading from Isaiah, and he linked it beautifully to life in the city. “Together with the prophet Isaiah, we can say: The people who walk, breathe and live in the midst of smog, have seen a great light, have experienced a breath of fresh air,” he said.

He explained that, while cities can be great centers of culture, tradition, and historical events, they are also a place where people can be easily forgotten. The foreigners, the homeless, children who go without schooling, people without medical insurance — they “stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.” Thus, as Christians, we are called to “Go out, again and again, go out without fear, without hesitation,” and proclaim the presence of God, who walks with us on the streets. (You can read the complete text of his homily here.)

These words were meaningful for me, not only as a resident of New York City but also as someone who works on behalf of the downtrodden in some of the most troubled parts of the world. People in cities like Addis Ababa, Kiev, Jerusalem and Erbil continue to walk in the darkness of poverty, war, and persecution. Pope Francis has called CNEWA to be a “great light” for them, whether it be by caring for refugees young and old, feeding the hungry, or sustaining the men and women religious who do God’s work.

It was a joy and a blessing to be in the presence of the Holy Father, and his words stand as a call to action for me, my colleagues, and all who are in the service of the poor. May we always be proclaimers of the word, bringers of hope, and, as Pope Francis said, “witnesses of the light.”

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