NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Thousands of faithful packed Madison Square Garden on Friday evening as Pope Francis celebrated Mass.

“Once in a lifetime, right? Once-in-a-lifetime visit,” said one woman in attendance.

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An estimated 18,000 people attended the service, which started around 6 p.m. and lasted about an hour and a half.

The service began with Francis making a lap of the arena floor in a golf cart to huge cheers, and it ended with a resounding applause and standing ovation.

The pope waved, smiled and accepted some flowers and other gifts. On a second lap that took him down the middle aisle, he stopped at one point, apparently to bless some children.

Francis emphasized a point he has made throughout his U.S. trip: the need to welcome foreigners and marginalized people. He praised big cities for their diversity and culture but warned that they can also make their people feel they don’t belong, shunning them and treating them like second-class citizens.

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In his homily he also cited “children who go without schooling, those deprived without medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly.”

He said God “frees us from anonymity, from a life of emptiness and selfishness.” He also said, “God is living in our cities,” and so is the church.

He concluded the service with the customary “go in peace and serve the Lord” and added, “Please, I ask you, don’t forget to pray for me.”

About 200 deacons and 150 volunteers assisted him in giving Holy Communion.

By his preference, Francis sat in a simple oak chair built by day laborers working for a charity, rather than by expert craftsmen.

“It was awesome, really just amazing,” Sheila, of Rye, told WCBS 880’s Jim Smith. “He’s just incredible.”

She said now it’s about taking the pope’s words and turning them into action.

“He’s very inspirational,” Sheila said. “But the thing is, it’s great to get excited while he’s here, and it’s easy, but then you have to put it into practice every day. And that’s the hard part. That’s why you have to go to Mass and read the scriptures.”

“You could feel the excitement in the room when he walked in and everybody’s screaming. It was wonderful. I love him,” one woman told 1010 WINS’ Al Jones, adding that she thought the pontiff was uncomfortable by the loud and long applause.

Another woman told Jones of the pope and his action-packed day: “I just want him to get a nap. I feel bad for him. I want him to take a nap.”

Before the service, Michelle told 1010 WINS’ Darius Radzius she has lived through many popes in her lifetime, but Francis is special.

“I just can’t explain what it is. He’s just love and humbleness — and the children, his eyes light up. He’s just wonderful,” she said.

Timmy Rivera said he knows exactly what makes Pope Francis so attractive to people of all faiths and beliefs.

“He’s really bringing people together in a way that I don’t think has ever been done before,” he said.

Many said they hope New Yorkers stay unified well after the pope leaves the city, Radzius reported.

Since guests were asked to arrive at MSG early for the event, there was a two-hour pre-event called “Journey of Faith” to keep the crowd entertained and excited for what was to come.

The pre-Mass program featured performances from Jennifer Hudson, Gloria Estefan and Harry Connick Jr., among others.

Those who couldn’t get inside the arena stood on Seventh Avenue to see him drive by, Radzius reported.

“Just saw him in the car going past,” a woman said. “It was really fantastic.”

Meanwhile, hundreds of parishioners in Brooklyn watched the Mass on a large television screen from their church, CBS2’s Tracee Carrasco reported.

About 500 worshipers at St. Athanasius  in Bensonhurst followed along page by page of their programs, and they hung onto every word spoken by Pope Francis. They prayed, sang the hymns and even took communion simultaneously as those at Madison Square Garden.

“It does give us all a chance — everybody that works and all the older community — and it’s better that we’re here. It feels safe. This is our safe place,” said Lusila Acosta, of Dyker Heights.

“I got to see what beautiful things the pope say, and it really touched my heart, and I really started crying by happiness,” said 9-year-old Arianna Lucas.

“I think it was the same thing,” said parishioner Vito Desciro. “Because if you would be in Madison Square Garden, you would have seen him maybe from farther away. So it felt just as good.”

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