NEW YORK – Pope Benedict XVI ended his first U.S. pilgrimage Sunday, completing a mission aimed at renovating and rebuilding the troubled Roman Catholic Church in the United States with moving appearances at two iconic sites, the crater where the World Trade Center once stood and Yankee Stadium.
By many accounts he succeeded – by tackling consistently and directly the pedophilia crisis that has undermined the church in America and by casting commitment to Catholic life in a vividly positive light rather than a recriminatory litany of prohibitions.
He lauded the integration of immigrants, spoke forcefully in defense of human rights and pleaded for Catholic unity to overcome painful differences.
“Today’s celebration is more than an occasion of gratitude for graces received,” he said at a packed Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. “It is also a summons to move forward with firm resolve to use wisely the blessings of freedom in order to build a future of hope for coming generations.”
In the most solemn moment of the six-day tour, Benedict prayed Sunday at the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, attack. Benedict sprinkled holy water in each direction of the compass, blessing as hallowed ground the scarred land where nearly 3,000 people died.
Benedict walked down a concrete ramp to ground zero in chilled fog, still and quiet, save for a New York Philharmonic cellist who played mournful movements from Bach. The pope kneeled and prayed silently at a small reflecting pool symbolizing renewal, then read aloud a prayer for victims, survivors and “those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred.”
“God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world,” he said. “God of understanding, overwhelmed by the magnitude of this tragedy, we seek your light and guidance as we confront such terrible events.”
Twenty-four people representing survivors, victims’ families, firefighters, police and paramedics attended the half-hour ceremony, encircling the pope as he prayed and then meeting him one by one. With each person, Benedict spoke a few words and looked into his or her eyes. Several kissed his ring. One woman wept, later giving long hugs to several of her fellow survivors.
Thomas Riches – a firefighter whose firefighting brother was among the first to respond on Sept. 11, 2001, and was killed – was among those who attended the ceremony.
“We carried my brother out of there, so it was kind of hard to walk back down there,” Riches told a television station. “But the pope being there made it worth it. … It was good to see him there.”
The sobriety of the ground zero ceremony gave way later Sunday to the kind of cheering reception that Benedict has repeatedly encountered.
More than 56,000 faithful filled the bleachers at Yankee Stadium as Benedict celebrated Mass and called on his followers to become “living stones in that spiritual temple” that is the Catholic Church.
The pope, in white robes embroidered with red crosses, used his homily as something of a coda for his U.S. mission, sounding again the themes of renewal in Christ, the importance of the church and the need for unity. He made the most explicit statement against abortion that he offered during this trip, saying the “unborn child in the mother’s womb” was also deserving of respect and rights.
” ‘Authority’ … ‘obedience.’ To be frank, these are not easy words to speak nowadays,” the pope said. “True freedom blossoms when we turn away from the burden of sin, which clouds our perceptions and weakens our resolve.”
He also reiterated the importance of transferring Christianity’s moral values to daily actions and public debate.