NEW YORK -- In the misty darkness before dawn, the glow of an earthly light illuminated a giant altar, decked in purple and gold and looking like an otherworldly ship that had settled gently on the damp ground.
But a few hours later, a man of God transformed the muddy oasis into a cathedral on the lawn.
About 125,000 people streamed into Central Park yesterday for Pope John Paul II's morning Mass. The occasion combined pop and opera stars, New York spectacle and a chance to pray with the Holy Father under the trees, with the city's cloud-shrouded towers in the background. For the pope, who seemed invigorated by the throng that chanted his name, this was a moment to reassure and embolden his American flock.
At the end of the Mass, he seemed not to want the morning to end. Instead of leaving the altar, the pope looked out at the crowd and spoke like a grandfather to an anxious child. "I say to you today, always be brave. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid," Pope John Paul, a small smile on his lips, said in a strong voice. "Do not be afraid. God is with you. Do not be afraid to search for God always. Then you will truly be the land of the free and the home of the brave.
"God bless America. God bless all of us."
Some of the pope's sermons through the years have sounded to some Americans like scoldings. But Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, the pope's chief spokesman, said after Mass that "I think he's in love with America."
The pope admires "the awareness of human rights, tolerance, the collections of so many groups of fascinating peoples, enterprise, generosity," Dr. Navarro-Valls said.
Later yesterday, the pope said the rosary at New York's St. Patrick's Cathedral. Mingling with a more intimate audience, he kissed babies, placed a comforting hand on the cheeks of women and touched men on the head in blessing.
He took a short walk along a cordoned-off Fifth Avenue to the residence of Cardinal John J. O'Connor, where he met with leaders of other faiths. Today, Pope John Paul brings his message to Baltimore, where he will conclude his fourth tour of the United States.
In Central Park, Manhattan's great playground, a gold carpet in the shape of a cross divided the huge lawn. The pope, regal in cream-colored vestments and gold-and-white miter, sat in a red chair on an altar the size of a football field.
He was keenly aware of this city's place in the world and the park's place in the hearts of New Yorkers.
"This is New York," he exclaimed in his homily, "the great, great New York. This is Central Park. The beautiful surroundings of Central Park invite us to reflect on a more sublime beauty: the beauty of every human being, made in the image and likeness of God."
L Yesterday, that image was Bridie Ryan of Woodside in Queens.
"We feel peace in the air," Ms. Ryan said.
She had a ticket, but from her spot in a wooded area behind a police barricade, she couldn't see the altar.
"We're happy just to hear him," she said.
The spectators, who began arriving in the dark during a cold drizzle, were calm and cheerful. The squads of ushers included Boy Scouts in khaki and Catholic cadets from West Point in their dress gray uniforms.
Usher Gisela Ramos, 19, a Fordham University student, called out to the ticket-holders pressing toward her: "You must stay in single file and smile. No sour expressions today. This is a happy day. The pope's here."
The congregation carried plastic sheets to sit on, and parkas and ponchos for warmth. Nuns in white habits and veils glided past, their hems barely skimming the mud.
With temperatures in the 50s, the lines for hot coffee were longer than the lines at the portable toilets.
"I'm pumped," said John Campbell, 14, of Trumbull, Conn. "I was actually able to get up at 3 in the morning. How many times do you get a free ticket to see the pope? You can't say, 'I don't feel like getting up today.' You've got to get up for it and have fun."
Leisa Miceli and her boyfriend, Doug Van Gorder, drove to New York from Massachusetts. They sat on an old plastic tablecloth and waited for the Mass to begin.
Ms. Miceli, 32, didn't know that Mr. Van Gorder, 36, had a private question to ask at this very public event. In his pocket was a little black velvet box holding a diamond ring and a tiny note: "Leisa, will you marry me?"
"It went perfect," he said last night. "I asked her when the pope said, 'Bow your head and ask for God's blessing,' and there was silence, and she said yes and the music came up, and she started crying and I started crying."
He said he chose this time to propose because "she's a really strong Catholic, and the pope means a lot to her and I thought it would be really memorable."
Yesterday morning as the skies lightened, the music began. Roberta Flack sang "Amazing Grace." Natalie Cole appeared with the Boys Choir of Harlem. Placido Domingo sang during Communion. Latino pop singer Jon Secada followed Kathy Triccoli, a Christian pop star.
But the star, the crowd made clear, was Pope John Paul.
When he spoke, he welcomed the thousands, up on their feet and cheering, with humor.
Joking again about the unsettled weather that has bedeviled his trip -- pouring rain one day, unseasonable heat the next -- he
stepped to the microphone and with a smile announced to the hushed crowd, "No rain. No sun."
His homily on his last full day in New York was tailored for the young audience that he had asked New York church leaders to gather for the Mass. The message was upbeat, meant to arm them for the pressures of the world.
He told them to celebrate what makes them unique. He told them of his love for them. And he reassured them that, with God in their hearts, they can overcome temptation.
"Christ wants you to go to many places in the world and to enter many hearts," he said.
He urged them to visit the poor, the hungry, the homeless, those suffering with AIDS. He told them to "stand up for life," to pray for the end of abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia.
"Stand up for marriage and family life!" he told them. "Stand up for purity!"
At the end of the Mass, the crowd didn't want him to leave. And he stood listening to them, nodding his head, as if he wanted to hold a conversation with scores of thousands.
They chanted, "John Paul II, we love you," in English. And in Spanish they chanted a rhyme that translates as "John Paul II, the world loves you." 'Yes, yes, I know," he answered in Spanish.
"Viva el papa," a man shouted from the crowd.
And then, as a choir sang Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus, Pope John Paul blessed his faithful once more and walked out of sight.