- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2008

NEW YORK — Pope Benedict XVI yesterday celebrated the third anniversary of his election as pope with a solemn Mass for 3,000 at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, then was cheered by thousands at a joyous parade up Fifth Avenue and by thousands more at an afternoon youth rally at a Yonkers seminary.

The 81-year-old head of the Catholic Church got a rock-star reception at the seminary when 20,000 young people cheered and waved Vatican flags. Organ music loudly boomed in the background. When the crowd refused to stop cheering after several minutes, he strode out on walkways jutting into the crowd and shook hands with seminarians in the front rows.

“These are our future priests, brothers and sisters,” New York Cardinal Edward Egan proclaimed to the pope. “We pray more and more young people will come forward at the urging of the Divine Master to serve as priests and religious,” he said.

While it was not clear how many youths had plans to do so, about 3,000 seminarians from around the country were in the crowd. A black-and-white banner reading “nypriest.com” hung on the back fence. The Web site’s slogan: “The world needs heroes.”

Priests, nuns, monks and bishops were at the pope’s audience at the St. Patrick’s Cathedral morning Mass. In his homily, the pope again addressed the topic of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, which has victimized at least 12,000 young people, mostly adolescent and teenage boys. He encouraged his “loyal sons and daughters of the church” who had remained faithful to their vows despite the tarnishing of the priesthood’s image as a result of the scandal.

“I simply wish to assure you, dear priests and religious, of my spiritual closeness as you respond with Christian hope to the continuing challenge that this situation presents,” he said. “I join you in praying that this will be a time of purification for each and every particular church and religious community and a time for healing.

“I also encourage you to cooperate with your bishops, who continue to work effectively to resolve this issue,” he said.

In stark contrast to his predecessor, John Paul II, who rarely mentioned the scandal, Pope Benedict has raised it repeatedly on this trip in both word and deed: expressing his shame on the flight to the U.S., chiding the American bishops for their mishandling of the crisis, mentioning the indescribable damage the scandal has done during his homily last week at Nationals Park, meeting with several Boston-area abuse victims at the Vatican Embassy, and in yesterday morning’s homily.

Dressed in gold, red and white vestments, the pope said priests and religious need to be filled with an interior “mystic light,” much like the stained-glass windows surrounding them in the Gothic cathedral.

“This is no easy task,” he acknowledged. “The light of faith can be dimmed by routine, and the splendor of the church obscured by the sins and weaknesses of her members. It can be dimmed, too, by the obstacles encountered in a society which sometimes seems to have forgotten God and to resent even the most elementary demands of Christian morality.”

Still, he called on them to have an “ever-deeper faith in God’s infinite power to transform every situation, to create life from death and to light up even the darkest night.”

He also hinted at divisions among his flock in a call for unity among leaders of the American Catholic Church.

“For all of us, I think, one of the great disappointments which followed the Second Vatican Council … has been the experience of division between different groups, different generations, different members of the same religious family,” he said. “We can only move forward if we turn our gaze together to Christ.

“In the light of faith, we will then discover the wisdom and strength needed to open ourselves to points of view which many not necessarily conform to own ideas or assumptions. Then we can value the perspectives of others, be they younger or older than ourselves, and ultimately ‘hear what the Spirit is saying’ to us and to the church.”

Yesterday’s ceremony was the first time a pope has celebrated Mass in St. Patrick’s, a venerable New York institution founded in 1858. Just before the pope marched down the aisle, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who is Jewish, briefly appeared in the pulpit, calling the occasion “a historic day for New York.”

His predecessor, twice-divorced former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, took Communion at the Mass, even though church law forbids remarried persons to do so, without a declaration from the church that the earlier marriage was never valid. Mr. Giuliani does not have such an annulment.

When asked by a reporter whether he was uncomfortable with breaking church rules, Mr. Giuliani said, “No.”

Mr. Giuliani, who also is pro-choice on abortion and favors gay rights, is not the only liberal Catholic public figure to take Communion at a papal Mass. Democratic Sens. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, and Edward M. Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts partook at Thursday’s Mass at Nationals Park in Washington.

Today is the final day of Pope Benedict’s U.S. trip. He will visit the former World Trade Center site and celebrate Mass at Yankee Stadium.

Following the Mass and a private lunch at the cathedral, the pope made his way down Fifth Avenue, which was packed at least 10-persons deep on both sides. He then headed to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, a suburb in Westchester County.

The pope had visited the seminary once before in 1988 as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He had planted a small sapling on the grounds, which has grown into a medium-sized oak.

After a brief service with 50 disabled children in the seminary chapel, he received an adoring welcome from the crowd of thousands of young people who had been waiting since late morning to see him. During the interval, they had listened to Grammy Award-winner Kelly Clarkson, Father Stan Fortuna (aka the “rapping priest”), the Christian rock group Third Day and vocal trio Three Graces and watched a dance performance by the St. Michael’s Warriors Dance Company.

The pontiff’s speech, for which many of the youths remained standing throughout, began with memories of his own teen years under the Nazis. It then shifted to an explanation of the nature of truth and the dangers of relativism.

“In some circles, to speak of truth is seen as controversial or divisive, and consequently best kept in the private sphere,” he said. “But what purpose has a ‘freedom’ which, in disregarding truth, pursues what is false and wrong?

“How many people have been offered a hand, which — in the name of freedom or experience — has led them to addiction, to moral or intellectual confusion, to hurt, to a loss of self-respect, even to despair, and so tragically and sadly to the taking of their own life?”

He urged his listeners to “turn to the saints” for inspiration on how to live and not to doubt their faith.

“Sometimes we are looked upon as people who speak only of prohibitions,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Authentic Christian discipleship is marked by a sense of wonder. We stand before the God we know and love as a friend, the vastness of His creation and the beauty of our Christian faith.” The latter remark prompted a huge burst of applause.

His listeners were entranced.

Francesca Grix, 15, of Pearl River, N.Y., spent the afternoon text-messaging her friends about what she was seeing.

“He is, like, such an important person,” she said. “He is the closest figure to Jesus.”

Brian Thomas, a former employee of the Archdiocese of New York now living in Rochester, N.Y., admitted he pulled strings in Cardinal Egan’s office to get a ticket for his daughter, Liz, who celebrated her 14th birthday yesterday.

The youthful crowd was the one of the most enthusiastic in Pope Benedict’s U.S. journey so far, and the pope paused frequently in his speech to acknowledge spontaneous cheers. Planners of the event lost few opportunities to remind the young listeners of the church’s declining vocations. St. Joseph’s Seminary has only 22 men currently enrolled, six of whom graduate this spring. None are slated to enter its first-year theology program.

Still, when Pope Benedict brought up vocations late in his speech, the crowd cheered again. They also cheered when the pope mentioned marriage and family life.

“I am sure that some of you young people will be drawn to a life of apostolic or contemplative service,” he said. “Do not be shy to speak with religious brothers, sisters or priests [about it].”

He added, “Dear seminarians, I pray for you daily.”

The black-garbed young men standing beneath him broke into a cheer: “We love you! We love you!”

The pope smiled.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much.”

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