By Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 21, 2008
NEW YORK, April 20 -- After thanking the United States for his "many memorable experiences of American hospitality," Pope Benedict XVI headed back to Rome on Sunday night, ending a six-day visit in which he directly confronted the clergy sex-abuse crisis and surprised many by drawing large, enthusiastic crowds.
"It has been a joy for me to witness the faith and devotion of the Catholic community here," Benedict said in a farewell ceremony at John F. Kennedy International Airport, attended by Vice President Cheney, 3,000 cheering Catholics and 250 singers and musicians.
Cheney thanked Benedict for a "memorable week" and said that the pope had "stepped into the history of our country in a very special way."
Benedict's stops in Washington and New York dramatically raised American Catholics' familiarity with -- and affection for -- their 81-year-old pontiff.
Experts said it was too early to know if it would also affect the depth of their faith or their trust in an institution rocked by sex abuse scandals. The visit made Benedict a more familiar and less authoritarian figure, they said, but the chasm between American Catholics and the pope is wide, particularly regarding subjects like same-sex unions and married priests.
"People may take a little bit more pride in being able to say, 'Yes, I'm Catholic,' but it doesn't translate into institutional commitment," said Paul F. Lakeland, director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Fairfield University and an expert on American Catholic laity. "I don't imagine we're going suddenly to see a 5 or 10 percent spike in church attendance. I think the issues are much deeper, and any solution is going to be much more long-term."
Benedict, known for a quarter-century as the tough enforcer of Vatican orthodoxy, steered away for the most part from divisive issues during his U.S. trip. He rarely mentioned abortion, homosexuality and his belief in the superiority of Catholicism over other faiths, all obvious hot-button issues. To the disappointment of opponents of the Iraq war, the pope made only a veiled reference to the conflict or his own opposition, criticizing unilateral action in addressing the United Nations.
His final day in the United States was marked by two powerful events: praying with victims of Sept. 11, 2001, inside the deep pit of Ground Zero, and celebrating a Mass at Yankee Stadium before more than 57,000 people.
Benedict's morning prayer service, in the nearly four-story-deep crater of what was the World Trade Center's North Tower, brought together two dozen people directly affected by the terrorist attacks that destroyed the towers, damaged the Pentagon and killed nearly 3,000 people.
After kneeling in prayer and lighting a Pascal candle -- typically lit at funerals and Easter, as a sign of resurrection and hope -- Benedict spoke briefly with each of the 24 people. Some wept, others hugged as the pope prayed to God to "turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred."
Later, at Yankee Stadium, on an afternoon that went from drizzle to sunshine shortly before the Mass, Benedict called upon Catholics to proclaim "unchanging truths," including the right to life of "the unborn child."
Living religiously "means overcoming every separation between faith and life, and countering false gospels of freedom and happiness. It also means rejecting a false dichotomy between faith and public life," he said.
Benedict acknowledged the obvious challenge of this message in a religiously diverse democracy, noting that "linguistic and cultural tensions [were] already present within the earliest Church community." However, he said, "all external structures, associations and programs, valuable or even essential as they may be, ultimately exist only to support and foster the deeper unity which, in Christ, is God's indefectible gift to his church."
It was at least the seventh papal Mass conducted in the New York area in recent decades. And compared with Thursday's tidy, more reserved Mass in Washington, held in a sparkling new stadium where church choirs and people remained largely seated, Yankee Stadium offered a more earthy setting, with the smell of sausage wafting through the old Bronx ball park.
Pop stars including Harry Connick Jr. and Stephanie Mills entertained the crowd in the hours before Benedict took the altar. Between his prayers, the audience whooped and clapped, though they interrupted the pope's homily just once -- when he spoke out against abortion.
Katherine Kiriakos, 15, of Yonkers, was texting a friend from a hallway just as priests and deacons began to distribute communion. "The pope is adorable," the 10th-grader said, having just texted the same thing. "I like the way he explained the Gospel."
Sunday's Mass sounded like a sporting event when New York Archbishop Cardinal Edward Egan acknowledged the U.S. dioceses celebrating their bicentennials: Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Louisville. As he listed each city, sections of the stadium stood and cheered. The Vatican has said Benedict's trip was timed for the bicentennials as well as for his speech Friday at the United Nations.
Benedict is known as a shy theologian, and experts predicted his homilies would leave many Americans unengaged. But his trip drew huge crowds, from Fifth Avenue in New York to Nationals Park in Washington. He brought unprecedented focus to the issue of clergy sex abuse and met with several victims, believed to be a first for a pope. He called the abuse of minors by U.S. clergy "evil" and "immoral" and said he was "deeply ashamed" of the scandal.
He also had several meetings with representatives of other faiths, including Muslims and Jews. Both groups have bridled at the pontiff's words and actions. It is, however, an open question whether the visit will ease tensions in any of those areas.
"I'm not thinking about any of the problems in the church right now," said Aldo Bencetti, 43, of Newark, who came to Yankee Stadium with his family. "I'm just enjoying going to Mass with the pope."