Pope emphasizes future of U.S. church


For the fourth time during his visit, the pontiff spoke about the sex-abuse scandal.

NEW YORK (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI focused on the future of his American church Saturday as he marked the third anniversary of his election as pontiff, rallying young people, priests and seminarians and assuring them of his support as they dealt with the damage from the clergy sex abuse scandal.

On a highly personal day, Benedict spoke of suffering under Nazism in his youth and, at another point, touched on his own “spiritual poverty.” He added that he hoped to be a worthy successor to St. Peter, considered the first pope.

Benedict began the day with a Mass at St. Patrick’s cathedral, the landmark Roman Catholic church on Fifth Avenue. The building was packed with cardinals and bishops, priests and nuns, who cheered him to mark the day he succeeded Pope John Paul II on April 19, 2005.

The German-born pope lamented that what he called “the joy of faith” was often choked by cynicism, greed and violence. Yet he drew an analogy to show how faith can overcome distractions and trials.

“The spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline, yet in the heart of this busy metropolis they are a vivid reminder of the constant yearning of the human spirit to rise to God,” he said.

In America, he has said repeatedly, the religious intensity stands out in marked contrast to the tepid spiritual emphasis in his native Europe. That makes the U.S. a testing ground for him in his bid to counter secular trends in the world.

He also returned Saturday to the sex abuse scandal that he said has caused “so much suffering” for the American church, assuring his audience “of my spiritual closeness as you strive to respond with Christian hope to the continuing challenges that this situation presents.”

It was the fourth time he has spoken of the scandal since beginning his first papal pilgrimage to the U.S. on Tuesday. While in Washington, he met with a small group of victims from the Boston Archdiocese, where the scandal boiled over in 2002. It was believed to be the first time a pope had met with victims of clerical sex abuse.

Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, meeting with reporters Saturday, was asked if the scandal had dominated the agenda of the trip. He denied that, saying it was part of the central theme of the entire visit, “to give hope to the church in the United States.”

Benedict later was driven to St. Joseph’s Seminary in nearby Yonkers, for a rally with young Catholics and seminarians. Upon arriving he blessed about 50 disabled youngsters in the seminary chapel. Two small girls gave him a painting and a hug.

The pope got a hero’s welcome at the youth rally from a festive crowd of 25,000, which burst into wild cheers when Benedict first acknowledged them from the stage. The shy theologian took time to reach out and shake hands with the ecstatic faithful in the front rows. The youngsters, meanwhile, sang “Happy Birthday” to him — he turned 81 on Wednesday — in his native German.

During his speech at the rally, Benedict reflected on the repression of his own youth under Nazism. He urged the young people and seminarians to carry on the faith while enjoying the liberties that they were fortunate to have.

“My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers,” he said making a rare reference to his own life. “Its influence grew — infiltrating schools ands civic bodies, as well as politics and even religion — before it was fully recognized for the monster it was.”

As the busy day wore on, Benedict showed signs of tiring. His secretary reminded him to give his greetings in Spanish at the youth rally.

“I forgot my Spanish,” the pope said with a chuckle. And the crowd laughed.

At the end of the St. Patrick’s service, Benedict was moved when his top assistant, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, read a tribute for the third anniversary.

Benedict told the crowd of 3,000 that “I am deeply thankful” for the support they showed him, and for “your love, your prayers.” The pope said that he, like St. Peter, was a “man with his faults.”