By Daniel Burke
c. 2008 Religion News Service
NEW YORK — Pope Benedict XVI ended his first trip to America on Sunday (April 20) with a Mass for more than 50,000 at Yankee Stadium that celebrated 200 years of the Catholic Church in America and exhorted his flock to “use wisely the blessings of freedom.”
“Past generations have left you an impressive legacy,” the pope said to the tens of thousands gathered in every seat of the famed stadium.
“In our day too, the Catholic community in this nation has been outstanding in its prophetic witness in the defense of life, in the education of the young, in care for the poor, the sick and the stranger in your midst. On these solid foundations, the future of the church in America must even now begin to rise!”
Earlier Sunday, Benedict paused for a poignant prayer ceremony at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, offering prayers for the victims and those “whose hearts and minds are consumed by hatred.”
The pope is scheduled to board “Shepherd One” and fly back to Rome Sunday at 8:30 p.m.
As Benedict’s popemobile circled the field for the final event of his six-day American visit, the cheering crowd shot to its feet and began waving kerchiefs in the papal colors of yellow and white.
The American church’s revival must be spiritual, the pope said, for “all structures, associations, and programs, valuable or even essential as they may be, ultimately exist only to support the deeper unity, which, in Christ, is God’s … gift to his church.”
As in previous addresses during his visit, Benedict’s homily tackled a number of themes, including the place of religion in the public square, the need for young men in the priesthood, the dangers of relativism and “the false gospels of freedom and happiness.” He made a passing reference to the sexual abuse scandal, but not with the depth of previous days.
With purple and yellow papal flags flapping in the wind, the 81-year-old shepherd of America’s 65 million Catholics highlighted the 200th anniversary of dioceses in New York, Philadelphia and Bardstown, Ky., (now Louisville) and the archdiocese of Baltimore.
Earlier, after a moment of silent prayer at ground zero, the pope was escorted to a pool of water and exposed earth where the twin towers of the World Trade Center once stood. Benedict lit a candle, prayed and blessed the ground with holy water.
Survivors of the attacks, first responders from New York City’s fire and police departments, and government officials greeted and spoke briefly with Benedict at ground zero.
“O God of love, compassion, and healing, look on us people of many different faiths and traditions, who gather today at this site, the scene of incredible violence and pain,” the pope prayed.
After asking for “light and peace” for the police and fire officers who responded to the attack and compassion for its nearly 3,000 victims, Benedict also implored God to “turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred.”
Sunday’s Mass capped six emotional days for Benedict during which he has opened a side of himself not seen by many Americans. On his way to the United States on Tuesday, the pope deplored the “great shame to me personally” brought on by the clergy sex scandal, met on Thursday with victims of sexual abuse, and spoke repeatedly of the “enormous pain” the scandal has wrought on his church.
At a youth rally on Saturday, Benedict offered a rare glimpse at his teenage years in Germany, lamenting the “sinister regime” of the Nazis, which he called “a monster.” At a Saturday morning Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral with Catholic clergy, the pope said that he is “a man with his faults,” and asked for their prayers.
As Mario St. Francis, 30, gazed at the massive yellow and purple stage assembled on the infield of Yankee Stadium, he said he felt he’d come to know Benedict over the last week.
“His comments about the priest sex scandal — that was awesome to hear,” said St. Francis, a lay missionary. “And his private meeting with the victims — I saw a pope who cares.”
Before the pope arrived, as the sounds of the Harlem Gospel Choir and Harry Connick Jr.’s live performances resounded through the stadium, the Rev. Henry Schreitmueller said Benedict “has proven himself to be a lot more human” than many had thought.
“He’s doing the same thing we learn to do when we’re in a new parish, he’s learning how to pastor to people,” said the 77-year-old retired priest from Nutley, N.J. Schreitmueller said he was not happy when Benedict was elected pope three years ago but lately, he said, he’s come to admire his fellow German.
Watching people wait patiently in line for snacks, Pat Nelson, 55, from Folcroft, Pa., said it seemed Benedict’s visit made people a little nicer, a bit more polite, at least for now.
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