Pope John Paul II wound up his soaring five-day American tour Sunday in the birthplace of American Catholicism with a Mass in that most American of places - an old-fashioned baseball field.
And the pontiff concluded his encounter with the often fractious American branch of the church by invoking Abraham Lincoln in a ringing call for the faithful to carry their religious values into the political arena.
In his homily Sunday, before 50,000 worshipers, he said political debate could not exclude “the biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country.” And he asked this question: “Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could no longer offer the contribution of their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy?
“Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation,” the pope continued. “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom - freedom - consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
The pontiff spoke from center field on ground people here consider already hallowed by Cal Ripken Jr., in the new but studiously traditional Camden Yards ballpark, home of the Baltimore Orioles.
Some 200 American bishops, nearly a dozen of them cardinals, emerged from the home team dugout. A chorus warmed up in the bullpen. The ushers wore orange caps, bow ties and suspenders, the Orioles’ team color.
The scoreboard flashed, “He is coming,” as the pope’s chartered TWA flight approached Baltimore and, “He is here,” when he landed.
As the pope entered the ballpark from right field for a lap in his popemobile, cheers from the stands drowned out the singing group Boyz II Men.
There was a festival atmosphere here Sunday, with banners on the streets, marching bands, pompons in papal gold and white, and bundles of brightly colored balloons floating into a clear crisp sky. It was, as much of the pope’s trip has been, a celebration of the pope himself, despite strong differences among American Catholics on issues like abortion, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women.
While the pope, as always, spoke out strongly against abortion in his appearances in the New York area, he also sounded a strongly worded challenge to what he perceived as a rising meanness in American political life: a movement to limit immigration, reduce subsidies for the poor and the weak, and return to an isolationist position.
“Is present-day America becoming less sensitive, less caring toward the poor, the weak, the stranger, the needy?” the pope said Thursday night at a Mass at Giants Stadium in New Jersey. “It must not.”
The pope returned to that note again Sunday, saying that Lincoln’s question of 130 years ago - whether a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” could “long endure” - was equally relevant today.
“The basic question before a democratic society is: ‘How ought we to live together?”’ the pope said, rephrasing Lincoln’s question.
“In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning?” the pope asked. “Can the biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from that debate?”
Emphasizing his concern for the poor, the pope shared a soup kitchen lunch of chicken casserole with rice, iced tea and water Sunday afternoon at Our Daily Bread, next to the Basilica of the Assumption, which serves about 800 meals a day to the homeless and needy.
The 23 guests included the pope; Cardinal William Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore; James Hart, director of Catholic Charities here, which runs the soup kitchen; a Mexican-American family who had learned English at a Catholic education center; a family who had adopted two Korean children through a Catholic adoption service; a mentally retarded boy and his parents; a family whose children had been in Head Start, and a 21-year-old unwed mother with her 4-year-old son.
The pope, looked tired and was frequently interrupted by security officials and functionaries. He kissed children and pressed a couple on the nose. He said grace, before and after the meal.
The pope sat between Tom Mulrenin, father of the two adopted children, and Donna Campbell, the 36-year-old mother, and asked what classes their children were in.
Afterward, Mulrenin said: “He is a magnificent, charismatic holy man. It was a mystical moment.” The pope, he added, cleaned his plate.
On Sunday, Baltimore moved aside some of the signed baseballs and other souvenir icons of Ripken, the Oriole shortstop who broke Lou Gehrig’s record for consecutive games played, to make room for pope T-shirts, banners, hats, flags and temporary papal tattoos.
The cover of Baltimore magazine, using a word as common here as “Yo” is in New York, trumpeted: “It’s the pope, Hon.”
At Kelly’s, a bar where patrons devour the city’s signature dish of boiled crabs by pounding their meals with wooden mallets on paper tablecloths, there was a T-shirt praying for better harvests that showed a crowd of crustaceans raising their claws to the pope in supplication.
At the airport, Vice President Al Gore was on hand to say farewell to the pope as he left for Rome on Sunday evening. The pope gave a last tribute to democracy - and a warning. He said, “Democracy needs wisdom. Democracy needs virtue.”
Then, before the pope set off, he recited the lines from the “Star-Spangled Banner” about “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
He added, “God bless you all.”