- The Washington Times - Friday, April 18, 2008

Pope Benedict XVI ministered yesterday to the many and the few, celebrating Mass with 46,000 joyful Catholics in a sun-bathed Nationals Park before meeting privately with a handful of the sex-abuse victims at the center of the church’s darkest scandal.

On the climactic day of his visit to Washington, the pontiff also addressed the widespread closures of American Catholic schools, urging nuns, priests and brothers to “renew your commitment to schools, especially those in poorer areas.”

“Holy Father, welcome to Washington,” a smiling Washington Archbishop Donald W. Wuerl said to the pontiff, who, dressed in red silk vestments and a resplendent gold miter, then stood to acknowledge cheers. “Your pastoral visit is a blessing to all our people.”

Benedict entered the giant stadium at about 9:33 a.m. to “Entrata Festiva,” a processional for organ, brass and timpani by Belgian composer Flor Peeters. His flock of all races and ethnicities, many of whom had waited there since 5 a.m. or earlier to see him, jumped to their feet and began to cheer. The sunny, blue skies were crystal clear; the mood of the people was jubilant.

“I can’t put my feelings into words; that is how excited I am,” said Agnes Ngami, 50, from Brandywine, who arrived wearing traditional dress in shades of bright yellow 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.”

In a stunning development yesterday afternoon after the Mass, the pope met privately for about a half-hour with five sex-abuse victims from the Boston area at the Vatican Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue during the pontiff’s post-lunch rest period.

The meeting marked the latest in a repeated series of words and acts from Benedict on the sex-abuse crisis during this trip and the victims who spoke publicly were effusive in their praise for him.

The Vatican said Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, the archdiocese from which the priest sex scandal emerged as national news in 2002, accompanied the group to the session. Word of the meeting was not made public until after it occurred.

“They prayed with the Holy Father, who afterward listened to their personal accounts and offered them words of encouragement and hope,” a Vatican statement said. “His Holiness assured them of his prayers for their intentions, for their families and for all victims of sexual abuse.”

Benedict did not avoid the sex-abuse scandal even at the Mass, assuring his audience during his homily that “no words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse.

“It is important that those who have suffered be given loving pastoral attention,” he continued. “Nor can I adequately describe the damage that has occurred within the community of the church.”

“Great efforts have already been made to deal honestly and fairly with this tragic situation,” he said, adding that “these efforts to protect children must continue.”

He added: “Today, I encourage each of you to do what you can to foster healing and reconciliation and to assist those who have been hurt.”

Several of the abuse victims who met Benedict at the Vatican Embassy said the pope had completely turned them around.

“This is a new start and it’s real hope. This time, it’s not just words,” Bernie McDaid said on CNN, adding that he had attended the papal Mass earlier in the day and had tears in his eyes at the pope’s mention of the sex-abuse crisis.

Olan Horne said he was from Missouri and his attitude is “show me. And today, I was shown. I don’t say that lightly.”

He said his hope in the church “was restored” and said Benedict’s attitude would be clear to all who “listened to the Mass and heard the sincerity” of how he spoke.

Mr. Horne called the embassy discussion “frank” and praised Benedict for letting the half-hour meeting run long. The victims “were given the time necessary” to state their peace, he said. Before the meeting, Mr. Horne had been belligerently skeptical, telling reporters that “I am not kowtowing. I will not kiss his ring.”

Faith Johnston said she hoped the meeting would reassure other abuse victims that the church’s actions toward victims would be different.

Words failed her when she met Benedict, she said. “Nothing came out. I just burst into tears.”

Benedict likely has more-detailed knowledge of the U.S. sex-abuse scandal than any non-American in the Vatican. In 2001, when the future pope was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Pope John Paul II gave him oversight of all church investigations of sexual misconduct against priests, even though Cardinal Ratzinger’s post as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was to serve as principal watchdog on theological orthodoxy.

Besides yesterday’s embassy meeting and homily, Benedict also admonished a gathering of America’s bishops on Wednesday over the sex-abuse crisis. He had said on his plane ride to the United States that he was “deeply ashamed” of the scandal.

Cardinal O’Malley, who replaced Cardinal Bernard F. Law in Boston upon his December 2002 resignation, originally wanted the pope to come to his city to address the issue. The Vatican would not expand Benedict’s itinerary beyond Washington and New York, but reportedly did agree to yesterday’s meeting in its stead.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, an Embassy spokesman, said Benedict had “affectionate words” for the men and women, and said Cardinal O’Malley gave the pope a notebook with the names of about 1,000 sexual-abuse victims in the Boston archdiocese, so that the pope could pray for them.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) welcomed the meeting, but said it was “overdue” and only a first step.

“Fundamentally it won’t change things,” a SNAP statement said. “Reform, real reform, is sorely needed in the church hierarchy. Some talk is OK. A meeting is better. Decisive reform is crucial.”

Benedict’s repeated public references to the sex-abuse scandal stand in marked contrast to John Paul II, who rarely mentioned it and never met with sex-abuse victims.

Benedict leaves Washington this morning for a three-day visit to New York, where he will address the United Nations, visit a synagogue, tour the World Trade Center site and celebrate Mass at Yankee Stadium.

The pope made yesterday’s public remarks while seated beneath an enormous gold-and-white canopy, built to resemble a famous baldacchino over the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He also — to cheers — spoke for a few minutes in Spanish.

The dimensions of the event were enormous: Four choirs numbering 570 singers sat behind the pope and 14 cardinals, 250 bishops and 1,300 priests sat around the field. The best talent, included tenor Placido Domingo. He got a thunderous ovation after finishing “Panis Angelicus,” a hymn by Cesar Franck. When the pope stood to applaud, Mr. Domingo rushed to kiss his ring.

The papal homily, which ran about 15 minutes, called on U.S. Catholics “to look to the future” and repeated what’s becoming a theme for this visit: the need for believers to be better instructed in their faith so as to engage secular culture.

“The challenges confronting us require a comprehensive and sound instruction in the truths of the faith,” he said. “But they also call for cultivating a mind-set, an intellectual ‘culture’ which is genuinely Catholic, confident in the profound harmony of faith and reason and prepared to bring the richness of faith’s vision to bear on the urgent issues which affect the future of American society.”

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.”

In his early-evening address at Catholic University of America to about 400 Catholic educational leaders, Benedict called on the church’s flock to “contribute generously” to these institutions and to work with the wider community to make sure they are “accessible to people of all social and economic strata.”

Benedict praised America’s “remarkable network” of parochial schools, noting that, with the aid of “selfless parents,” they had “helped generations of immigrants to rise from poverty and take their place in mainstream society” over the decades.

But the number of Catholic elementary and high schools fell from 8,719 in the 1989-1990 school year to 7,378 in the current year. In an interview last month with The Washington Times, Archbishop Wuerl predicted this trend will continue without government vouchers, saying the church faces continued challenges to “sustain all of these schools, particularly in the poorest, urban areas.”

Many Catholic students were at the Mass, which involved more than 300 priests and deacons tasked with distributing Holy Communion in 20 minutes. Because of the difficulty in getting the consecrated hosts from the altar to obscure parts of the stadium, many were blessed at a ceremony earlier in the day and sent to various Mass “stations” where worshippers could take Communion.

The transformation of the stadium into an outdoor cathedral necessitated confession booths, as Catholic teaching requires that believers confess any mortal sins to a priest before taking Communion. 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,” said District resident Maria Adosinda Esteves, 36. “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 article.

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