"But think of the vast majority of dedicated and generous priests," he urged up to 800,000 people at an outdoor Mass at a former military airfield here, ". . . be close to them and support them." The vast congregation cheered his remarks.
The three-hour Mass ended World Youth Day 2002, the 17th international gathering of teenagers and young adults, sponsored by John Paul II. The pope, 82, goes on to Guatemala today and then on to Mexico before returning to the Vatican.
About 200,000 young people from 170 countries, including about 150 from metro Atlanta, registered for the weeklong Toronto revival. Hundreds of thousands more joined them for the public Mass, which Canadian television called the largest gathering in the country's history. Many of the young participants spent the night on the ground at the airfield after a Saturday evening prayer vigil with the pope. Some sang and danced well into the night, sampling one another's cultures and music.
They awoke to rain Sunday morning, intermittent at first and then steady and hard as the pope's helicopter made its way to the field. It landed as a choir sang the "Hallelujah Chorus" from Handel's "Messiah." The rain was followed by wind that turned some umbrellas inside-out and billowed the pope's green vestments. But then, as the pontiff spoke, the wind calmed to a breeze and the sun broke through. Some participants saw significance in the changing conditions. "The rain was like a baptism," said Nicholas Azar, 38, youth minister of Atlanta's Cathedral of Christ the King. "Then, you could feel the wind of the Holy Spirit kind of blow through." And the sun, he said, was Jesus Christ, "the rising Son."
The pope spoke slowly about basic matters of faith--the "illusion of finding life by excluding God, of finding freedom by excluding moral truths and personal responsibility," and the need to bond together in the church. "If you love Jesus, love the church!" he urged. "Do not be discouraged by the sins and fallings of some of her members."
This year, the Catholic Church in the United States has been rocked by revelations of sexual abuse by priests and cover-up by bishops. In June, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a stringent new policy that requires removal from active ministry of any priests under investigation and requires that all complaints be reported to civil authorities. Other countries, including the pope's native Poland, have seen their own scandals.
Slumping significantly to his right, the pope showed obvious symptoms of arthritis and Parkinson's disease. He seemed to exhibit urgency about passing on the torch of the faith to the youth. He said that he was "unshakably convinced that no difficulty, no fear is so great that it can completely suffocate the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young." "Do not let that hope die," he urged. "Stake your lives on it."
Among some of metro Atlanta's contingent, the week's activities had the desired result. Kelly Fitzgerald, 18, of St. Thomas the Apostle parish in Smyrna, said she is sure the impact will be long lasting. "We're bringing the spirit of Christ home," she said. "I'm going to take it everywhere I go."
The pope announced Sunday that the next gathering will be held in Cologne, Germany, in 2005.