- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI celebrated a historic morning Mass at Nationals Park stadium this morning, urging the 46,000 faithful gathered under clear blue skies to be the “lamp of evangelical hope in American society.”

“I thank God for the blessing of being in your midst,” the Holy Father said humbly in opening the two-hour worship service, held in the packed sports arena on his landmark visit to the United States, the first by a pope in nearly 30 years.

In a message of reconciliation and hope, the pope acknowledged the damage done by the pedophile priest scandal that rocked the church, asking Catholics to reach out and help those who have been hurt and to also love their priests.

“No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse,” the pope said. “It is important that souls who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention. Great efforts have been made to deal honestly and fairly with this tragic situation. These efforts to protect children much continue.”

It was a regal and reverent ceremony that encouraged diversity with readings in Spanish, Japanese and a patchwork of global languages, featuring four choirs of 570 singers and a full orchestra that drew Catholics from around the nation to hear the 81-year-old pontiff’s message of renewal.

After taking a lap around the field in his Mercedes popemobile, Pope Benedict entered the stadium in the Mass processional just before 10 a.m. flanked by celebrants and trailed by Secret Service agents before ascending to a massive altar set up in baseball park’s center field as the forceful brass of the orchestra regally pierced the morning air.

As he stood from his seat, the German-born pope, in the third year of his papacy, was met with thunderous applause and cheers from the exuberant crowd that included 14 Roman Catholic cardinals, 250 bishops and 1,300 priests.

Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl welcomed the pope to the nation’s capital as a beacon of rebirth.

“It is a moment of spiritual renewal as we look to you and you bring to us Christ and his gospel of hope,” said Archbishop Wuerl, who acknowledged the first celebration of Mass in the United States in 1634.

“From these modest beginnings has come forth a trust truly representative of the gospel’s message of hope,” Archbishop Wuerl said. “The church that welcomes you today embraces people from every continent and numerous ethnic and cultural backgrounds. All of us at this Mass reflect the breadth of this faith family that includes women and men, young and old. We look to you for renewed inspiration to continue the challenge to make all things new in Christ our hope.”

From a Native American flute that echoed softly as he blessed a group of congregants, to a Hispanic choir singing “Espiritu Santo” in Spanish, and a gospel singer and choir offering a touch of urban modernity, the service was inclusive of many cultures. It honored the richness of the Catholic community around the world as the pope spoke in German, Spanish, Latin and English during the two-hour, open-air Mass.

The pope’s message was hopeful, saying the Church in the United States continues at a time of great promise, is committed to the future and ready to meet new challenges. He urged Catholics in the U.S. to resist the “polarization on the part of many of our comtemporaries” and the “growing forgetfulness of Christ and God,” asking them to recommit their lives to “new evangelization.”

“So much more remains to be done in informing the hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of the Lord,” Pope Benedict said, asking followers to “start new building a new nation and foundation.”

“My visit to the United States is meant to be a witness for Christ our hope,” he said. “Hope for the future is very much a part of the American character. Hope continues to mark the life of the Catholic community in this country.”

“So much more remains to be done in informing the hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of the Lord,” Pope Benedict said, asking followers to “start new building a new nation and foundation.”

“My visit to the United States is meant to be a witness for Christ our hope,” he said. “Hope for the future is very much a part of the American character. Hope continues to mark the life of the Catholic community in this country.”

He left the stage to personally serve communion to attendees. A phalanx of security surrounding him as he handed out the Eucharistic host, where he paused briefly to speak to a U.S. serviceman in uniform. Tenor Placido Domingo sang “Panis Agelicus” at the processional.

People were jubilant.

“I can’t put my feelings into words; that is how excited I am,” said Agnes Ngami, 50, from Brandywine, Md., who was wearing traditional dress in bright yellow shades from her native Cameroon. “Just breathing the same air as the pope is good enough for me. I don’t even have to see him or touch him.”

The pope’s message was well received.

“We need this type of leadership” said Monsignor Michael Schmied from St. Augustine Catholic Church in Richmond. “We want to show a face of the Catholic Church that is intelligent, respectful, communicative and compassionate.”

The Mass itself involved more than 300 priests and deacons tasked with distributing Holy Communion in 20 minutes. Because of the difficulty in getting the Eucharistic host to obscure parts of the stadium, many of wafers were consecrated at a ceremony earlier in the day and sent to various Mass “stations” where worshippers could partake.

The transformation of the stadium into an outdoor cathedral necessitated confessional booths, as Catholic teaching mandates that believers confess their sins to a priest before accepting the Eucharist. Lines at the booths were 20 deep by 7 a.m. and concession stands ran out of coffee early, much to the distress of the many sleepy worshippers who had come by Metro, then stood in long security lines.

Still, “Going to confession is like going to a psychiatrist — it is a way of preparing for the Mass,” Maria Adosinda Esteves, 36, from the District. “This is a spiritual relief.”

Many of the worshippers were in the stadium because they had won tickets through a parish lottery. Gary and Melanie Hooper and their son, Zachary, 9, from Benedict, Md., were three of the lucky 25 out of several hundred members of their parish, St. Francis de Sales.

“This,” said the father, “is the closest you can get to God.”

Kristi Moore and Hsin-yin Lee contributed to this story.

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