Pope Francis arrives at U.N., plans visit to Ground Zero

In his first address to the U.

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N. General Assembly, the pope touched on a litany of international issues, including nuclear proliferation, drug trafficking and slave labor. But he dwelled most on the need to preserve the world’s ecological system, warning that further damage perpetuates “today’s widespread and quietly growing culture of waste.”

“Any harm done to the environment, therefore, is harm done to humanity,” Pope Francis said in his native Spanish from the lectern inside the General Assembly, an audience of world leaders seated before him. “The misuse and destruction of the environment are also accompanied by a relentless process of exclusion. In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and disadvantaged.”

“The poorest,” the pope said, “are those who suffer most from such offenses.”

Shortly before the pope began his address, Washington’s political class was distracted by news that House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, will resign at the end of October. The announcement came one day after the Catholic Boehner welcomed the pope to the U.S. Capitol. Before revealing his plans at a meeting of House Republicans, Boehner tweeted photographs of himself with Francis under the words: “What a day.”

As his first trip to the United States entered its fourth day, Pope Francis, the spiritual leader for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, visited places and embraced themes that allowed him to express commitment to people who are poor, dispossessed, and suffering.

His speech at the U.N. was the first in a series of stops scheduled Friday, the emotional apex of which is likely to be his visit just before noon to Ground Zero, the memorial in Lower Manhattan where nearly 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

By 7:30 a.m. Friday, about 200 people were on line outside a tickets-only entrance to the Ground Zero site, many of them relatives of people who were killed on 9-11.

Ariana Vigiano, 16, and her mother Maria Vigiano-Trapp, 50, were near the front after arriving early from their home on Long Island. Both said they were hoping the pope would fortify their faith in God, which was shaken after Ariana’s father, John, a New York City firefighter, was killed trying to rescue people from the World Trade Center.

“I’m still trying to get a little bit of closure,” she said. “I’m hoping he will say something that will really speak to me and help me feel really spiritual and try to get me in touch with my father.”

After a late-afternoon tour of a Catholic elementary school in East Harlem and a motorcade past sprawling crowds in Central Park, Pope Francis is to preside at a 6 p.m. Mass before 19,000 worshipers at Madison Square Garden.

Since his arrival Tuesday, the pope has addressed a number of weighty issues, expressing his support for immigrants, the need to combat climate change and his opposition to the death penalty. His speech before the United Nations, was no less substantial, providing him an opportunity to deliver to a worldwide audience his expansive views on the environment and economic and social issues.

On his first morning in New York, Pope Francis’s chauffeur-driven Fiat and motorcade pulled up to the U.N. on Manhattan’s East Side at around 8:20 a.m., where he was greeted by the body’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon of South Korea.

Prior to addressing the General Assembly, the pope spoke to a gathering of United Nations staff, thanking them for their work on behalf of world peace and laying a wreath for those U.N. workers who have died in service.

At the conclusion of his remarks, he offered to pray for “you and your families” and asked that they “pray for me.”

“To non-believers, I ask you to wish me well,” he said, after which the audience erupted in laughter and applause.

The pope’s address to the General Assembly could influence the body as it prepares to approve a set of sustainable development goals that include ending world hunger and poverty and ensuring the availability of clean energy and water.

In his speech, the pope addressed the threat of war, saying an “urgent need” exists for a “complete prohibition” of nuclear weapons. He also said “hard evidence is not lacking of the negative effects of military and political interventions which are not coordinated between members of the international community.”

“While regretting to do so,” he said, “I must renew my repeated appeals regarding to the painful situation of the entire Middle East, North Africa and other African countries, where Christians, together with other cultural or ethnic groups, and even members of the majority religion who have no desire to be caught up in hatred and folly, have been forced to witness the destruction of their places of worship, their culture and religious heritage, their houses and property, and have faced the alternative either of fleeing or of paying for their adhesion to good and to peace by their own lives or by enslavement.”

The pope also touched on “another kind of conflict, which is not always so open,” a reference to drug trafficking that he said “is silently killing millions of people.”

“Drug trafficking is by its very nature accompanied by trafficking in persons, money laundering, the arms trade, child exploitation and other forms of corruption,” he said. “A corruption which has penetrated to different levels of social, political, military, artistic and religious life, and, in many cases, has given rise to a parallel structure which threatnese the credibility of our institutions.”

In his trip to the United States, a five-day tour that includes Washington, New York and Philadelphia, jubilant crowds have showered the 78-year-old spiritual leader with adoration as he has traveled between stops, some of which have highlighted his commitment to the poor and dispossessed.

Earlier this week, Pope Francis implored congressional leaders at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday to set aside bitter partisan differences to achieve progress on immigration reform. During a visit to the White House, the pope expressed support for President Obama’s campaign to tackle climate change.

When he visits the 9/11 memorial in lower Manhattan, the site where planes struck the twin towers 14 years ago, the pope is expected to meet with families of some of the victims who died in the attack.

The pope is to descend into the lower level of the Ground Zero museum, for a multi-religious ceremony organizers hope will promote tolerance at a time of religious violence and skepticism. The ceremony is to occur in the soaring Foundation Hall, against a World Trade Center retaining wall that survived the attacks.

The choice of the spot represents a “new urgency” for religious tolerance, said James Massa, a Brooklyn bishop who has been a national Catholic leader on interfaith work and who designed the ceremony.

“That’s the wall that holds back the Hudson River,” he said. “If that had fallen on 9/11, even greater chaos would have happened. It held. It’s the wall that holds back the chaos. I think these leaders with the pope are gathered, like the conscious of our time, that holds back the chaos of war and violence and hatred that afflict segments of humanity.”

The pope’s whirlwind day will conclude with the Mass at Madison Square Garden, the warmup for which will include performances by singers Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Hudson and Gloria Estefan.

On Saturday morning, Pope Francis is to travel to Philadelphia, where his stops will include the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Center City, Independence Hall and a correctional facility.

The pope flies back to Rome on Sunday.