NEW YORK – Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass and American Catholicism in storied Yankee Stadium on Sunday, telling his massive U.S. flock to use its freedoms wisely as he closed out his first papal trip to the United States.
Benedict beamed before a joyous crowd of 57,000, hours after making a solemn stop to pray at the site of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center.
He called the Mass "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."
Raw Data: Text of Pope Benedict's Homily at Yankee Stadium
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And he repeated a core message of his six-day pilgrimage — that faith must play a role in public life, citing the need to oppose abortion.
The unwavering truth of the Roman Catholic message, he said, guarantees respect for the dignity of all, "including the most defenseless of all human beings, the unborn child in the mother's womb." The crowd applauded the line.
Worshippers filled the seats, chanting, clapping and waving white and yellow handkerchiefs in the Vatican's colors as the white popemobile pulled in. At the end of the service the German-born Benedict again processed out slowly, serenaded by the strains of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."
Outside the stadium, two dump trucks filled with sand blockaded 161st Street before Mass, an extra level of security along with the heavy police presence. Pilgrims without tickets pushed up against metal police barricades, hoping to get a glimpse of the arriving pope.
Inside, ad-splashed outfield walls were draped in white with purple and yellow bunting. A white altar perched over second base, and the papal seal covered the pitcher's mound, suspended by white and yellow ribbons.
"I have never seen Yankee Stadium so beautiful, and I have season's tickets," said Philip Giordano, 49, a tax attorney from Greenwich, Conn., who won seats in the loge section behind home plate through a parish lottery. "It sure beats sitting in my local church."
Added his wife, Suzanne: "I'm hoping to feel something from (Benedict). Everyone who has seen him says they crumple, their knees buckle. You come away just feeling different."
New Orleans crooner Harry Connick Jr., on the pre-Mass concert program, remarked that he is often asked if he's a practicing Catholic.
"Practicing?" he said. "I'm playing for the pope today."
Benedict seemed to enjoy his long journey to the altar in the popemobile, waving to people in the stands. From the altar, he stood to acknowledge the crowd's roar when New York Cardinal Edward Egan welcomed him.
He praised the U.S. church, which has 65 million members, in his homily, saying that "in this land of freedom and opportunity, the church has united a widely diverse flock" and contributed greatly to American society.
The pope departed on a special airliner nicknamed "Shepherd One" after a farewell ceremony hosted by Vice President Dick Cheney, with Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Clinton in attendance. "May God bless America!" the pope said before departing.
Earlier, on a chilly, gray morning, the pope blessed the site of the terrorist attacks and pleaded with God to bring "peace to our violent world."
The visit by Benedict to ground zero was a poignant moment in a trip marked by unexpectedly festive crowds such as the one at Sunday's Mass.
Benedict was driven in the popemobile part-way down a ramp now used mostly by construction trucks to a spot by the north tower's footprint. He walked the final steps, knelt in silent prayer, then rose to light a memorial candle.
Addressing a group that included survivors, clergy and public officials, he acknowledged the many faiths of the victims at the "scene of incredible violence and pain."
The pope also prayed for "those who suffered death, injury and loss" in the attacks at the Pentagon and in the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 in Shanksville, Pa. More than 2,900 people were killed in the four crashes of the airliners hijacked by Al Qaeda.
"God of peace, bring your peace to our violent world," the pope prayed. "Turn to your way of love those whose hearts and minds are consumed with hatred."
Benedict invited 24 people with ties to ground zero to join him: survivors, relatives of victims and four rescue workers. He greeted each member of the group individually as a string quartet played in the background. In his prayer, he also remembered those who, "because of their presence here that day, suffer from injuries and illness."
New York Deputy Fire Chief James Riches, father of a fallen Sept. 11 firefighter, said the pope's visit gave him consolation.
"We said 'Where was God?' on 9/11, but he's come back here today and they've restored our faith," Riches said.
The site where the World Trade Center was destroyed is normally filled with hundreds of workers building a 102-story skyscraper, a memorial and transit hub. It bears little resemblance to the debris-filled pit where crews toiled to remove twisted steel and victims' remains.
The remains of more than 1,100 people have never been identified.
Back at Yankee Stadium, some worshippers filed out of the service slowly, trying to soak up the atmosphere as long as they could.
"It was great for the young, it was great for the old," Judith Halsey, a nurse from Bayonne, N.J., said of Benedict's visit as she left the Mass. "It was an uplifting time for the entire Catholic religion. Everyone needed this."