By Christina Leslie | Staff Writer

In addition to the multitudes of Diocese of Trenton faithful who journeyed to see Pope Francis in Philadelphia, many traveled into New York City to participate in the Papal events there.

Two diocesan school principals, Cornelius Begley of St. Leo the Great School, Lincroft, and Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Nace of St. Rose High School, Belmar, were among the tens of thousands who witnessed the pontiff capture the hearts and minds of people in the Big Apple.

Reverence in Midtown

“It was amazing to see the transformation of [Madison Square] Garden from a sports arena to a place of worship,” declared Begley about his trip to New York City for the Papal Mass in Madison Square Garden Sept. 25. “Everyone was dressed well. They were respectful and reverent. Nothing was taken away.”

Begley and his wife, Jayme, had obtained prime tickets just three rows from the altar and enjoyed an unobstructed view of Pope Francis celebrating Mass before the standing-room-only crowds. Despite having hosted sports teams, rock bands and other secular events for nearly a half-century, Begley felt the midtown Manhattan landmark’s transformation as the Holy Father took the stage.

“I felt very lucky that I was there,” said Begley, a fourth degree Knight of Columbus and member of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. He recalled a similar feeling of awe when, as a student, he attended the Oct. 5, 1995, Giants Stadium Mass celebrated by Pope St. John Paul II. “With the Pope there, the Garden was special.”

The St. Leo the Great School principal will carry the themes of giving of oneself from the Pope’s homily back to his Lincroft grammar school. “The Pope is a very spiritual person,” Begley stated. “His words help us remember that from those of us who have much, much is expected.

“I will remind the students, ‘your Catholic faith is universal,’” he continued. “To see the Pope, everyone there, even non-Catholics, were very reverent, very respectful. Everyone knew they were there for a special moment in the history of the Church and the history of the country.”

‘Be joyful, be grateful and work hard’

“It was phenomenal,” Sister Kathleen said of her group’s trip to participate in vespers in St. Patrick’s Cathedral Sept. 24. The high school principal was accompanied by Msgr. Edward J. Arnister, pastor of St. Rose Parish, Belmar; Father Walter Quiceno, the parish’s parochial vicar, and Dr. Margaret Boland, assistant superintendent in the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools, who had received tickets from an alumna of St. Rose who serves as development director for Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York.

The group arrived by 3 p.m. to get through security checkpoints, and had time to tour the newly-renovated cathedral. “It was so bright and fresh, it glowed,” Sister Kathleen said.

Each pew held gift bags containing a journal from the Archdiocese of New York, a translation of St. Luke’s Gospel, and a prayer card. A choral performance, talks on the history of the papacy and the cathedral and the recitation of the Rosary preceded the Pope’s arrival, as did a gentle admonition by St. Patrick Cathedral rector, Msgr. Robert T. Ritchie.

“The Monsignor told the crowd, ‘I know we will be like teenagers at a rock concert when the Pope arrives, but we have to remain respectful once the service begins,’” Sister Kathleen recalled. “But when Cardinal Dolan went back to greet the Pope, and open those bronze doors so he could come in, the place erupted.”

The quartet from Trenton joined in the exuberant applause from their seats in the center aisle about 20 rows from the altar. Television monitors mounted on the pillars carried the Pope’s words and translated them from Spanish to English when the pontiff switched to his native tongue. Sister Kathleen was especially grateful at the Pope’s public recognition of the work by the religious nuns.

“In a special way I would like to express my esteem and my gratitude to the religious women of the United States,” Pope Francis said in his homily. “What would the Church be without you? Women of strength, fighters, with that spirit of courage which puts you in the front lines in the proclamation of the Gospel. To you, religious women, sisters and mothers of this people, I wish to say “thank you”, a big thank you… and to tell you that I love you very much.”

The recognition did not go unnoticed.

“I thought it was great when he thanked the sisters for their service; it was a highlight of his talk. When everyone stood and applauded, it was nice to see,” she said. “He presented us with a good challenge: be joyful, be grateful, and work hard. I loved his gentleness, his sense of forgiveness, of welcome, of joy.”

“We need to do what Jesus did, thank God, pick up his cross and move forward. It’s sometimes a challenge in our community,” noted Sister Kathleen, who is approaching her silver jubilee as a religious. “We need to look at what religious life will become, not to only look back. There is so much more to come.”

Like Begley, Sister Kathleen has plans to share the message of the Pope with her students. “I’ll tell them: be joyful, be grateful, and put yourself at the service of God’s people. All of us should do this.”