"Don't forget the rosaries," called a parent as 50 youths from the Albany Diocese in matching t-shirts filed onto a Yankee Trails bus Sept. 25 in the parking lot of the diocesan Pastoral Center in Albany.

The young people, accompanied by five chaperones, were headed to see Pope Francis celebrate Mass at Madison Square Garden in New York City, and their families were eager to have religious items blessed by the pope. The teens, selected through a lottery after their names were submitted by parishes across the Diocese, didn't seem to mind missing classes and athletic events in favor of seeing Pope Francis during his historic U.S. visit.

"I was eating dinner," said James Cunninffe of St. Cecilia's parish in Warrensburg, recalling when he got the news that he'd be one of the 50 lucky youth representatives from the Diocese.

"I was playing video games," noted Derek Proper of All Saints on the Hudson parish in Mechanicville/Stillwater.

For Hannah Lea of Corpus Christi in Round Lake, attending the papal Mass at Madison Square Garden meant being treated more like an adult. After telling an employee at a local Verizon store about it, she said, she'd gotten better service. At a Stewart's convenience store, "The lady touched me, so if I got blessed," it might transfer to her.

Once in a lifetime
Peter Wendler of Holy Cross parish in Morris said he was "ecstatic" to be heading to New York City. He showed up in a suit and tie.

On the bus, a large card was passed around to thank Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger for the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Nearing New York, the young Catholics began to feel the day's excitement. Considering what the Holy Father might say during his homily, many thought he might speak on abortion or immigration.

The pope is "influential," Katrina Costanzo of St. Stephen's parish in Hagaman told The Evangelist. "He pushes us to look more into things. He's spontaneous, for a pope."

"Welcome to New York," declared Brian Evers, associate director of safe environment for the diocesan Human Resources Office, as the bus approached the Port Authority terminal to receive security clearance.

"We are doing something we do every week: We are going to see our pastor. Pope Francis is our pastor," he told the group. "This isn't a trip; this is a pilgrimage."

Secret service members and the NYPD led K-9 units around the bus. It took two hours of waiting for the bus to even begin heading toward the venue, surrounded by tens of thousands of other Mass-goers, New Yorkers and news crews covering the pope.

"It's cool that so many people get to come see him," remarked Zoe Schlesinger of St. Kateri Tekakwitha parish in Schenectady.

Waiting...and waiting...
After chaperons distributed tickets for the Mass, the youths rushed off the bus. Part of the group managed to enter the arena within minutes, but the rest were caught up in the massive crowd.

As time passed and the group walked nearly 17 blocks, it became increasingly obvious that something was wrong. The line, which should have been made up of less than 20,000 people, appeared to have double that number of people in it.

Three hours in, cries of, "I'm so exhausted right now," and, "I'm missing my soccer games for this," started to arise. Some of the Albany youths wanted to get a pizza delivered to them in line; others contemplated calling the police to pick them up and take them home.

The tickets for the event said MSG's doors would close at 3:30 p.m. At 3:40, the group was still waiting. Police had guaranteed that anyone who had a ticket would get into the arena, but Elizabeth Czermerys of Immaculate Conception parish in Haines Falls was losing hope of seeing the pontiff. "I'm missing geometry for this," she noted.

"Everyone was so excited that I was going to see the pope," said Elizabeth Thompson of Holy Cross in Morris. "Now that's not going to happen."

Here I am, Lord
The only thing that seemed to buoy the group was seeing others from the Albany Diocese in line. Rev. Robert Longobucco, pastor at St. Kateri parish in Schenectady, led the group in singing "Here I Am, Lord."

When the line turned the corner onto 7th Avenue, the youths' spirits leapt. Teens began taking selfies with police officers and high-fiving fellow pilgrims.

"This is actually happening," exulted Elyssa Connolly of St. Kateri's.

When the group reached the gate, the last ticket was scanned and everyone made it through the security checkpoint, cheers erupted.

Not long afterward, a golf cart zipped into the stadium. In the passenger side was a small man with a white zucchetto: Pope Francis, waving to the crowd as they screamed in jubilation.

The Mass, scheduled to start at 6:30 p.m., began about 20 minutes early. An orchestra played as the bishops of New York State proceeded onto the altar -- including Bishop Scharfenberger and Bishop Emeritus Howard J. Hubbard, whose appearance on the Jumbotron screen brought smiles from the Albany contingent.

Other than the fact that the pope was presiding, the Mass was simple, with the papal homily in Spanish translated on the big screen. The Holy Father did address immigration, saying that immigrants are treated as "not part of the city," and touched on environmental issues. He talked about smog and its terrible effect on cities.

Viva papa
Cheers erupted when Pope Francis concluded that "the Church lives in our cities."

After the Mass, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of the New York Archdiocese welcomed the pope to New York, speaking of the universality of the Church and noting what an honor it was to have Pope Francis lead the celebration: "It is so dazzlingly evident this evening that the Church is our family -- and you, our Holy Father, thanks for visiting us, your family."

As cheers continued, the pontiff spoke one last time, saying, "Please, I ask you, don't forget to pray for me."

Even as the recessional ended, the youths of the Albany Diocese remained on their feet.

"I cried during the Mass," said Eric Fields of Notre Dame-Visitation parish in Schuylerville. "The amount of people that the Lord speaks to is amazing."

Sophia Jones from St. Vincent de Paul parish in Albany said the many languages spoken during the Mass "made it really universal. Everyone, no matter where they're from, was feeling what I was feeling."

When the tired group finally made it back to the bus, they chatted with new friends and shared cell phone numbers and photos from the day.

As teens in the front of the bus began to fall asleep, some in the back hummed "Here I Am, Lord."