When Pope Francis approached the altar at Madison Square Garden for Mass, seven priests and two bishops from Buffalo were on hand to concelebrate. As Bishop Richard J. Malone and Bishop Edward M. Grosz stood at the altar alongside the Holy Father and other bishops of New York state, nearly 1,000 other priests sat behind and to the sides in the bleachers for the historic Mass.
Special tickets were given to dioceses throughout the United States allowing the holder to concelebrate with Pope Francis during his Sept. 25 Mass in New York City.
"It was an awesome experience," said Father Jeffrey Nowak, parochial vicar of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Niagara Falls. "Surprisingly, for having close to 20,000 in the arena for Mass, everything ran like a well-oiled machine, from the security into MSG to getting everyone in their places for Mass. Even Communion, which we thought would take an extra long time when it was planned by the musicians, went incredibly smooth and incredibly fast."
Madison Square Garden, known for sporting events and concerts, was dressed in white cloth and carpeting to welcome Pope Francis after a tour of Manhattan. The Mass itself displayed diversity in the faces of the congregation and the multilingual liturgy.
"There was electricity there. You were singing and participating. It was a very inspirational Mass," said Father Joseph A. Gullo, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Arcade, who also concelebrated. "It was a great experience because in Pope Francis' sermon he said, 'Go out to others and share the good news with them.' Pope Francis urged the congregation to go out into the city to seek the face of Jesus in the poor and suffering, and to share the joy of the Gospel with all."
"It was inspiring to be in the presence of such a holy, humble man who I think is a wonderful reflection of the mercy and love of God. His care for people was palpable, and his challenge for us to care as well was rousing," said Father Patrick Zengierski, director of Campus Ministry for SUNY Buffalo State.
"The Mass at the Garden was exceptional, and really showed a cross section of the Church. It showed various ethnicities, various age groups - young and old, priests, religious, deacons. It was a small gathering of the whole universal Church. So, it was a great celebration," said Father Nowak.
Father Nowak, who was ordained in 2012, found a great message in the pope's homily as he challenged the priests and all Catholics to move out of their comfort zones and seek to help the marginalized. The pope used the term "get out of the smog."
"The smog that clouds our vision sometimes and seek that clarity as a Church rooted in Christ and go forth; to do more than living our faith. I would say 'doing our faith,'" Father Nowak explained.
"I think Cardinal Dolan summed it up best in his remarks at the end of the Mass, when he said, 'Every day we pray for Francis, our pope, and now you are here with us.' To be in that presence, to be with the pope kind of gives a renewed energy, because he's coming to us. The Holy Father came to us as a shepherd, as our pastor. The great challenge comes, and I think it is running in the back of every priests mind nowadays is, everything that we say, everything we do, how we live our lives, is the notion of who are the people we are serving. Are we willing to unconditionally serve all of God's people? The quintessential phrase that Pope Francis coined at the beginning of his papacy was for all of us to 'smell like our sheep.' It's a great challenge to really live out every single day what it means to be a Catholic, for us as priests to live out our priestly promises ultimately in service to God's people. So, his example really is a challenge for all of us."
Pope Francis brought with him an excitement and hope that mimics what the athletes and musicians bring when they arrive to play the Garden. His followers wore his picture on T-shirts and bought souvenirs to help preserve the memory of seeing him, and being part of the papal experience.
"As all these people descended on the city, you kind of had this feeling that they were gathering for a rock star," noticed Father Nowak. "You could almost tell, as you encountered people in the city, who were the Catholics. They were the ones with T-shirts, with the papal flags, with all the memorabilia of Pope Francis. But what you also saw was that the pope was not just coming over as a religious leader, not only as a head of state, but as a pop icon. You had everything from bobbleheads, T-shirts, signs and everything with the pope on it. So it was a great experience to see so many people gather."
Father Nowak brought a friend of his who is discerning a vocation to the priesthood.
"It was amazing to see New York City come to a screeching halt to see Pope Francis; to see barricades and fences and all the people. What stood out to me about that is that all those people flocked to see the pope, but so few are willing to do what the pope asks of them," said Matthew Bojanowski. "I think that's where Pope Francis is really modeling St. Francis of Assisi requesting us to rebuild the Church and to preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words."
Bojanowski, 34, from West Seneca, came to New York hoping that witnessing Pope Francis would help him in his spiritual journey.
"I guess it really helped me see the need for an outreach to the marginalized," he said. "In his homily, he talked about how the big cities conceal the faces of people who appear to have no right to be there. I thought about all the Christians in the cities and I thought about how many times we, as Christians, have judged who has a right and who has no right to be there, even in our own churches. How many times have we said, until that person is right with the Church, they have no place there? But, it was Pope Francis who called us to go out to the marginalized and to meet those people where they are and not where I think they should be. And to not only look at them as people, but as brothers and sisters. In doing so, you can see Jesus in the process, but you can also see yourself in them as well. I think we, as Christians, need to realize that a house divided can't stand, to be accepting of others, and that the light of love within you was never meant to be hidden, it was meant to be shared. If people don't find love in our churches, then they're going to look in all the wrong places."