EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) _ They wept, did the wave and despite hours of a steady, driving rain, more than 80,000 Catholic faithful stayed in their seats for Mass in a football stadium.
The man who kept them there was Pope John Paul II, who invoked Emma Lazarus’ plea for America to embrace its huddled masses in condemning abortion and euthanasia and limits on immigration.
``I cannot describe how exuberant and exhilarated I feel at this moment,″ 68-year-old Ada Tronolone said after Thursday night’s Mass at Giants Stadium. ``Seeing John Paul II was a personal experience in a crowd of more than 80,000. He makes you feel like he’s talking just to you.″
The pope was to celebrate Mass today at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York City, then visit with future priests at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, N.Y.
At the stadium, in the pontiff’s first large-scale public event of his five-day U.S. tour, hours of steady rain and wind could not detract from the enthusiasm of the huddled masses. Some in the crowd wept, some pressed their hands to their hearts or cried ``Viva el Papa″ as the pontiff circled the stadium in his popemobile.
``I see that the people of New Jersey know how to praise God, even in the rain,″ the pope told the crowd of 82,498, the largest ever at Giants Stadium.
The pope was partially protected by a white canopy hanging over a huge red-carpeted altar set up in an end zone. But at one point during the two-hour service, the wind knocked off his white zucchetto, the skullcap. Some bishops celebrating Mass with the pope wore clear rain slickers over their white and gold vestments.
In the crowd, the rain was so heavy at times people would tip the water off of their seats before sitting back down during the service. Most could care less.
``This is the most important day of my life. I cannot describe to you how important it is to be here,″ said Edward Pietro, 76, of Toms River. ``After today, if nothing else exciting or wonderful happens in my life, I will die a fulfilled man.″
In his homily, the pontiff urged worshipers to continue in the tradition of the anti-slavery and civil rights movements to extend legal protection to ``the unborn child,″ the elderly and the severely handicapped.
``Both as Americans and as followers of Christ, American Catholics must be committed to the defense of life in all its stages and in every condition,″ the pontiff declared.
Just 10 miles from the Statue of Liberty, the pope also recited part of Lazarus’ poem in encouraging Americans to continue to welcome immigrants yearning to breathe free and to serve the poor.
``Is present-day America becoming less sensitive, less caring toward the poor, the weak, the stranger, the needy? It must not,″ the pope said.
``If America were to turn on itself, would this not be the beginning of the end of what constitutes the very essence of the `American Experience?‴
Earlier Thursday, the pope urged the United Nations to be an authentic force for peace.
``The United Nations Organization needs to rise more and more above the cold status of an administrative institution and to become a moral center where all the nations of the world feel at home,″ he told the 185-member General Assembly.
The pope’s visit during the U.N.’s 50th anniversary year was the central point of his fourth pilgrimage to the United States. The organization is deeply in debt, in part because of its expanded peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and elsewhere, and Pope John Paul wants to see it strengthened.
He sketched the dramatic changes since he last addressed the assembly in 1979 _ the fall of Communism and cuts in nuclear arsenals.
Now, he stressed, the danger stems from a ``narrow and exclusive nationalism,″ which triggered ``a true nightmare of violence and terror,″ most recently during ethnic upheavals in Rwanda and Bosnia.
``Nationalism, particularly in its most radical forms, is thus the antithesis of true patriotism,″ he said.
The pope is to celebrate Mass in Manhattan’s Central Park on Saturday, then travel to Baltimore on Sunday. He returns to Rome on Sunday night.