Greeted warmly by the large crowd at the baseball stadium in Washington, Pope Benedict offered a blessing to those in attendance. The Papal Mass on April 17 was his first public Mass in the United States, celebrated during his first pastoral visit as pope to this country.
Greeted warmly by the large crowd at the baseball stadium in Washington, Pope Benedict offered a blessing to those in attendance. The Papal Mass on April 17 was his first public Mass in the United States, celebrated during his first pastoral visit as pope to this country. CS PHOTO BY RAFAEL CRISOSTOMO
The defining character of the United States is and has long been to be "a people of hope," said Pope Benedict XVI to 46,000 Catholics gathered for the papal Mass at Nationals Park on Thursday.

"Your ancestors came to this country with the expectation of finding new freedom and opportunity, while the vastness of the unexplored wilderness inspired in them the hope of being able to start completely anew, building a new nation on new foundations," he said in his homily.

Before the Mass began, the pope entered the stadium at about 9:30 a.m. in the white popemobile, circling the ball field to the strains of "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name." As Pope Benedict XVI passed the cheering crowds, they waved small white and yellow Vatican flags.

"Hope for the future is very much a part of the American character. And the Christian virtue of hope - the hope poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the hope which supernaturally purifies and corrects our aspirations by focusing them on the Lord and his saving plan - that hope has also marked, and continues to mark the life of the Catholic community in this country," he said.

The Catholic Church in America, and society as a whole, he described as being at a crossroad. "We see clear signs of a disturbing breakdown in the very foundations of society: signs of alienation, anger ... increased violence; a weakening of the moral sense; a coarsening of social relations; and a growing forgetfulness of God."

He called on Catholics in America to evangelize and give witness to the faith, confirmed by his pastoral visit to the United States.

"The successor of Peter in your midst will be an occasion for all Catholics to reaffirm their unity in the apostolic faith, to offer their contemporaries a convincing account of the hope which inspires them and to be renewed in missionary zeal for the extension of God's kingdom," said the pontiff. "The world needs this witness!"

The Holy Father was joined by 14 cardinals, 250 bishops and 1,300 priests in concelebrating the Mass. In his opening remarks, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl welcomed Pope Benedict XVI to the nation's capital. Wearing bright red vestments, the pontiff outstretched his arms and smiled at the crowds. As the liturgy began, the pope incensed the sun-drenched altar.

In his homily, Pope Benedict XVI pointed to signs of progress in the Catholic Church in the United States, including "the enthusiasm for the faith shown by so many young people, in the number of those who each year embrace the Catholic faith, and in a greater interest in prayer and catechesis."

Addressing the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the pope's voice softened and he spoke somberly of the suffering endured by victims. "I acknowledge the pain which the Church in America has experienced as a result of the sexual abuse of minors," he said. "Great efforts have already been made to deal honestly and fairly with this tragic situation, and to ensure that children - whom our Lord loves so deeply and who are our greatest treasure can grow up in a safe environment."

He encouraged the faithful to support and pray for their priests. "Love your priests, and affirm them in the excellent work that they do. Above all, pray that the Holy Spirit will pour out his gifts upon the Church, the gifts that lead to conversion, forgiveness and growth in holiness."

Through the power of suffering and forgiveness, the Church in America will "embrace ever more fully the way of conversion and fidelity to the demands of the Gospel," the pope said.

He praised the efforts of the bishops, priests and deacons, men and women religious, parents, teachers and catechists in passing on the truths of the Catholic faith.

"The fidelity and courage with which the Church in this country will respond to the challenges raised by an increasingly secular and materialistic culture will depend in large part upon your fidelity in handing on the treasure of our Catholic faith," he said.

Throughout the two-hour liturgy, 570 voices from several choirs filled the cavernous new stadium, in the first non-baseball event since it opened in March.

The Mass was celebrated in several languages spoken in the archdiocese, including a Scripture reading in Spanish and the general intercessions in Korean, Vietnamese and Tagalog.

The offertory procession included several groups who when they brought the gifts up to the Holy Father, he greeted and blessed them. When several persons with disabilities approached the altar, he left his papal chair and went to them, offering them a tender embrace.

The Holy Father left the sanctuary to personally distribute Holy Communion to many individual Mass-attendees. Approximately 5,000 people were seated before the large altar situated in the stadium's outfield. Opera star Placido Domingo sang, "Panis Angelicus" during the Communion meditation. Following his rendition, Domingo knelt before the pope and kissed his ring.

At the conclusion of the Mass, Pope Benedict XVI blessed the cornerstone of the future John Paul the Great High School to be located in the Arlington Diocese, as well as holy articles brought by the faithful.

Pope Benedict XVI processed down the center aisle to loud, roaring cheers erupting from the crowds who didn't seem to want the pontiff to leave their presence. As he left, the faithful on the field gathered along the aisle, many reaching out to touch him as he blessed them. He stopped at one point to offer a blessing on a newborn baby.

Before he departed through the Nationals' dugout, he smiled and waved goodbye, as more crowds rushed toward him to catch a final glimpse.