For Pope Francis’ Mass at Madison Square Garden, God Is in the Details

It was supposed to be Billy Joel’s 67th moment in the spotlight at Madison Square Garden. Instead, it will be Pope Francis’ first.

Sep 18, 2015

The chair Pope Francis will use during Mass later this month in New York City has arrived at Madison Square Garden.

NEW YORK CITY: It was supposed to be Billy Joel’s 67th moment in the spotlight at Madison Square Garden. Instead, it will be Pope Francis’ first. On Friday, Sept. 25, the pope will celebrate a 90-minute Mass in the same space where Joe Frazier triumphed over Muhammad Ali during the “Fight of the Century” in 1971.

For one day, the arena will become a house of worship. The Knicks’ and Rangers’ championship banners, the Liberty banners, as well as the American and Canadian flags, will still hang. But on the Eighth Avenue side of Madison Square Garden, between 31st and 33rd Streets, there will be a sanctuary.

About 6:15 p.m., the pope will circle the arena in a four-seat golf cart to greet the 20,000 worshipers.

While recommendations from the Vatican were to keep the event simple, the preparations have been anything but.

Setting the Stage

The stage, the sanctuary and three aisles will be covered with white carpeting, and the front of the stage will be decorated with long-stemmed white roses. A sweeping white canopy resembling a pope’s hat was built over the sanctuary.

“We were instructed to keep it simple and classy but not to overdo anything,” said Dan Parise, whose production company, Diversified Production Services, has spent months getting ready for the pope.

At the center will be the papal chair. “Cathedra,” in Latin, means “chair,” and in Catholicism, a chair represents teaching authority and unity. One of the thrones presented to Pope Paul VI during his 1965 trip was a gold-painted, hand-carved Victorian chair. Francis’ throne is made of humble birch and oak plywood, with a mahogany-like finish. It was built by four men, laborers from Obreros Unidos in Yonkers and Don Bosco Workers in Port Chester, N.Y., nonprofit groups that aid immigrant workers.

The altar and the ambo, where the readings will be delivered, were made of slabs of oak veneer plywood bought from King Lumber and Home Depot for about $1,700. They were built by three students from Lincoln Hall Boys’ Haven, a school for at-risk youth in Lincolndale, N.Y., who worked under a master carpenter.

The cotton and polyester linens that will cover the altar were designed by six Mexican women in Yonkers, who are taking sewing classes as part of Proyecto Madres, a collective run by Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York. They stitched large brown crosses encircled with green leaves on two 4-by-12.5-foot cotton cloths using about $300 worth of materials.

The Pre-Mass Show

A two-hour pre-Mass show will keep the audience engaged as people wade through metal detectors and Francis wends his way downtown from East Harlem. The organizers are calling the show “A Journey in Faith,” a sequence of videos, catechesis, prayer and performances by, among others, Harry Connick Jr., Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Hudson.

The program will also include a recitation of the rosary, with 10,000 rosaries to be distributed throughout the crowd.

The concession stands will offer the usual hot dogs, chicken fingers and pretzels, as well as higher-end fare like Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Simply Chicken sandwich, Andrew Carmellini’s Sausage Boss and Drew Nieporent’s Daily Burger. Forget the beer: Alcoholic beverages will not be sold.

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Papal trinkets will also be on sale, including the official lapel pin for his visit and Pope Francis Christmas ornaments.

For those seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation, 56 confessional stations will be set up throughout the building.

The Papal Mass

This Mass will follow the same order as Mass does in every parish in the archdiocese.

According to Archdiocese of New York, the theme of the Mass is peace and justice and it will be said in three languages: English, Latin and Spanish. The Universal Prayer will be said in Gaelic, Mandarin, English, French and Italian. Because this Friday is not a special day on the Catholic calendar, Francis will wear green vestments. He will also carry the pastoral staff used by Pope Paul VI during his 1965 visit.

In the sanctuary will be 40 bishops from New York state, 13 seminarians serving as acolytes (instead of altar boys or girls), five bishops traveling with the pope, four deacons, a cantor and several lay members of the papal entourage.

The concelebrating priests, of which there will be more than 1,000, will bring their own chasubles, cape-like garments, and the bishops will wear ones borrowed from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. At least one will carry a crosier, a staff resembling a shepherd’s. There will be four cardinals, 600 nuns and more than 200 deacons.

There will be not be a Bible on the altar. Instead, Francis will have a special missal printed by the Holy See. There will be seven processional candles, six altar candles and one thurible filled with incense made of a frankincense and sandalwood blend.

Ten gift bearers will bring the bread, wine and water and five parishioners from the archdiocese will offer the petitions for the Prayer of the Faithful.

During communion, 200 eucharistic ministers will fan out in the aisles to distribute 25,000 communion wafers. A case of communion wine, about nine liters, will be consecrated, but only priests and bishops concelebrating the Mass will receive it.

The director of music at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Jennifer Pascual, said she selected the music to be “user friendly” and “inclusive.”

There will be seven anthems for the 125-member choir, which has been rehearsing for about a month, and 12 congregational songs. Also on hand will be a 40-person orchestra that Dr. Pascual will conduct, two organists who will play on a borrowed electric organ — “It’s not ideal to use the sports organ,” she said — one cantor and one soloist.

Francis does not typically sing during Mass, she said, but what is said to be his favorite hymn, “Pescador de Hombres,” will be sung in Spanish during communion. Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan will chant the intonations for the call and response.


After Mass, the pope will go for a quick greeting to an overflow theater where more than 5,000 people will have watched on monitors. The leftover communion wafers will be distributed to local parishes, but the archdiocese doesn’t know where the chair, the altar and the ambo will go.

The Madison Square Garden crew will come in as it does after every event and break down the altar, sweep the floors and pick up the trash. And Billy Joel, using some of the same set-up, will take the stage on Saturday.--The Newyork Times

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