Pope leaves U.S. on an up note

April 20, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
Pope Benedict XVI celebrated his final Mass in the United States before a joyous full house in Yankee Stadium on Sunday, looking to be enjoying every moment as he blessed his U.S. flock.It was, for tens of thousands, a profoundly moving experience, a day spent with their spiritual leader. Benedict XVI came rolling into Yankee Stadium just after 2:00 p.m. and the crowd of more than 50,000 rose to its feet, roaring like a wave.

The pope reached out to the crowd, as if trying to touch everyone from the box seats to the bleachers. And he made his way to the alter, holding the 19th Century cross of Pope Pious IX.

"Most holy father, welcome to New York," Edward Cardinal Egan said, as the mass began, and the crowd cheered as the pope rose and waved again.

Egan spoke for many New Yorkers, not all of them Catholic, who saw Benedict's visit as a spiritual touchstone. In his homily, he said his followers, like the church itself, must persevere.

"It means facing the challenges of present and future with confidence in Christ's victory and a commitment to extending his reign," Benedict said. "It means not losing heart in the face of resistance, adversity and scandal. It means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness."

He also urged respect for all human life, including "the most defenseless of all human beings, the unborn child in the mother's womb." The crowd cheered the line.

The pope made one last lap around the stadium in the popemobile to uplifting music of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." It's an afternoon many here will remember for many years to come.

Outside the stadium, security was tight. Two dump trucks filled with sand blockaded 161st Street before Mass, an extra level of security along with the heavy police presence. Pilgrims without tickets pushed up against metal police barricades, hoping to get a glimpse of the arriving pope.

Inside, ad-splashed outfield walls were draped in white with purple and yellow bunting. A white altar perched over ond base, and the papal seal covered the pitcher's mound, suspended by white and yellow ribbons.

"I have never seen Yankee Stadium so beautiful, and I have season's tickets," said Philip Giordano, 49, a tax attorney from Greenwich, Conn., who won seats in the loge section behind home plate through a parish lottery. "It sure beats sitting in my local church."

Earlier, on a chilly, gray morning, the pope blessed the site of the terror attacks and pleaded with God to bring "peace to our violent world."

The visit by Benedict to ground zero was a poignant moment in a trip marked by unexpectedly festive crowds such as the one at Sunday's Mass.

Benedict was driven in the popemobile part-way down a ramp now used mostly by construction trucks to a spot by the north tower's footprint. He walked the final steps, knelt in silent prayer, then rose to light a memorial candle.

Addressing a group that included survivors, clergy and public officials, he acknowledged the many faiths of the victims at the "scene of incredible violence and pain."

The pope also prayed for "those who suffered death, injury and loss" in the attacks at the Pentagon and in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa. More than 2,900 people were killed in the four crashes of the airliners hijacked by al-Qaida.

"God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world," the pope prayed. "Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred."

Back at Yankee Stadium, some worshippers filed out of the service slowly, trying to soak up the atmosphere as long as they could.

"It was great for the young, it was great for the old," Judith Halsey, a nurse from Bayonne, N.J., said of Benedict's visit as she left the Mass. "It was an uplifting time for the entire Catholic religion. Everyone needed this."


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