Pope ends U.S. visit with Mass in New York
NEW YORK: Before a crowd of nearly 60,000 people at Yankee Stadium, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday ended his first visit to the United States as leader of the Roman Catholic Church with a reminder to the faithful that "obedience" to the authority of the church, even in a country that prizes individual freedom, is the foundation of their religious faith.
During a six-day visit to Washington and New York, the pope addressed world issues, visited a synagogue and voiced deep shame over the child sexual abuse scandal that has damaged the church's standing in many American dioceses.
At a morning ceremony at ground zero, the pope blessed the World Trade Center site, where more than 2,700 people were killed in the terrorist attack, and prayed for peace.
But at Yankee Stadium on a cool, brilliant Sunday afternoon, with an adoring audience of people waving yellow cloths, one of the colors of the Vatican, Benedict acted chiefly as pastor to America's 65 million Catholics, laying out in simple terms their obligations to a church that represents what he has called the "one church" established on earth by God.
"Authority. Obedience. To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays," the pope said in his homily during the Mass, held on an acre-size platform built over the Yankees infield, "especially in a society which rightly places a high value on personal freedom."
Three years after the death of Pope John Paul II, his popular and charismatic predecessor, the reserved and theologically erudite Pope Benedict XVI gently but unequivocally delineated the source of authority that has since devolved to him, and that he said was integral to the church itself.
Referring to himself, he said, "The presence around this altar of the successor of Peter, his brother bishops and priests, and deacons, men and women religious, and lay faithful from throughout the 50 states of the union, eloquently manifests our communion in the Catholic faith, which comes to us from the apostles."
In the Gospels, the Apostle Peter was chosen by Jesus to lead the church, and each pope is said to be the successor of Peter.
In a glancing reference to the sexual abuse of children by priests, he said that praying for the kingdom of God "means not losing heart in the face of adversity, resistance and scandal. It means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness."
In his writings before and since becoming pope, Benedict has stressed the importance of a strict adherence to orthodoxy, and opposition to a wide array of modern cultural trends, including feminism, gay rights, and demands ? especially among American Catholics ? for greater democracy and administrative transparency within the church.
The Mass at Yankee Stadium was the largest public event of the pope's tour, and it was held on the same day as the most intimate meeting of his visit.
In his stop at ground zero on Sunday morning, the pope spoke briefly with a small group of survivors and families of the victims of the Sept. 11 attack. Cardinal Edward Egan of New York stood beside him and read each one's name and gave the pope a brief description of the family member lost by the person. Some took the pope's hand, and many knelt and kissed his ring, the traditional protocol for Roman Catholics.
For those not invited to meet personally with Benedict or able to get one of the scarce event tickets, there were the untold number of TVs tuned in to the various events of the week.
There were six wide screens at Billy's Sports Bar on River Avenue in the Bronx, where Mike Gonzale, 29, of Woodside, Queens, sat watching as the pope said Mass on Sunday at the stadium across the street.
"You feel an energy; you feel a peace," Gonzale said, speaking softly, like a golf commentator, as he watched the television. "I think most people feel a calm relief from the complicated world we're living in."
Inside the packed stadium, the energy was palpable, the stands a solid wall of blurring yellow cloths and cheering.
After the Mass, waves of excitement followed the path of the pope as he first walked, and then rode in his Popemobile, around the outside track of the field.
Surrounded by black-suited Secret Service men as he walked, the 81-year-old pontiff moved somewhat haltingly, the papal scepter in his left hand. He waved gingerly with his right hand. The crowd roared with all the sustained excitement of spectators at a pennant-clinching game.
The next and final stop for the pope was Kennedy Airport, where Vice President Dick Cheney led a ceremony before the pontiff's return trip to Rome.
Many of the people interviewed after Sunday's Mass said they were deeply moved to be in the presence of Christ's vicar on earth, as the pope is known to believers. His role as a spiritual father figure can seem to be almost personal for some Catholics.
"The most amazing part was when he came in the Popemobile," said Sylvia Rios, 45, who attended the Mass with her former husband, Jesus Matthews, 46. "I know he wasn't waving at me, but we had good seats, and when I looked at him, he looked like he was waving specifically at me."
But more, people at the Mass said it was thrilling to be in a state of religious communion with so many others ? and while in the presence of the pope, who represents the founding of the church 2,000 years ago.
Christa Rivers-Caceres, 37, who drove from Bushkill, Pennsylvania, with her husband, Enrique, 32, said being at Yankee Stadium made her feel like part of the family of Catholics, who number more than one billion worldwide. "You were proud to be Catholic," she said. "It helped reaffirm our faith."
Efrem Menghs, a phone company salesman from Columbus, Ohio, said the experience had made him a better person. "I will look back and say I'm glad I came to this event," he said. "I did something for God."