By Jonathan Rubin
c. 2008 Religion News Service
WASHINGTON — As the sun rose over the sparkling new Nationals Park baseball stadium, the weather turned from chilly to warm to downright glorious — not unlike the feelings many Catholics here expressed for their new pope.
As Pope Benedict XVI met 46,000 members of his American flock for the first time on Thursday (April 17), there was a palpable sense of newfound love for a man still trying to emerge from the shadow of Pope John Paul II.
“God makes us all different,” said Friar Matt Foley, a teacher at Archbishop Curley High School in Baltimore. “He’s just like anybody else … new on the job.”
It’s been three years since Benedict’s election, yet more than 80 percent of Americans don’t know much or anything about the pope, according to a recent poll. Part of the (unofficial) reason for the pope’s six-day trip was for both sides to get acquainted.
Benedict was originally viewed as a strict and bookish theologian likely to enforce a more conservative orthodoxy on the U.S. church, but a new pope is emerging. This pope is interested in the environment, eager to personally apologize for the priest sex abuse scandal, and capable of showing warmth that belies his age.
“I looked into his eyes and I thought, `These aren’t old eyes,”‘ said Elizabeth Mandapat, from Phillips, Md., who arrived at the stadium before 6 a.m. “I feel so energized. … It’s like I didn’t need any sleep.”
It’s almost as if the man once derided as “God’s Rottweiler” has finally become the “German Shepherd” advertised on so many bumper stickers and T-shirts for sale.
The Mass, like the church in general, attracted the faithful and faith-shaken alike. Some have seen their beliefs weakened by war, death or misdeeds by the Catholic Church itself.
Those with deep faith, however, say they find its depths to be bottomless. Being close to the pontiff is “like getting closer and closer to Christ,” said Mother Maria Della Caridad, a member of the Servants of the Lord and the Virgin of Matara in Washington.
The faithful who packed the new stadium said the crowds made it feel like they were surrounded by “one big family.” Not every seat had a clear view of the pope, and in the nosebleed seats at the top, one woman shrugged when she was asked if she could hear what the pope was saying.
“Not really,” she said.
But for most, the pope’s message of hope was clear.
Martha Onate came from Chicago to stand outside Nationals Park. “I didn’t have tickets,” she said, “but I came for the blessing.” She will follow the pope to New York by train.
And for some, the Mass served as an opportunity to sacrifice and achieve holiness, even if that meant not being there to see the pope.
Murphy Taylor, of Leonardtown, Md., won a ticket in a church lottery, but because he’s too young to receive Communion, he gave his coveted papal ticket to his older brother, Cullen.
“We didn’t even bribe him to do that,” his father said. “But he’ll be getting a big present when we get home.”
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.