Mass with Pope Draws 46,000 to D.C. Stadium

A Mass with Pope Benedict XVI will draw 46,000 people to the Nationals baseball stadium Thursday in Washington, D.C. The pope is spending six days in the United States. It's his first visit since becoming pontiff in 2005.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Pope Benedict XVI last night addressed some 350 bishops at the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington D.C. In a wide-ranging discussion of the bishops' role in the church, the pontiff turned to the sexual abuse scandal, which he called badly handled and a source of shame.

Pope BENEDICT XVI: Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior. As you strive to eliminate this evil wherever it occurs, you may be assured of the prayers on the part of God's people throughout the world. Rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims.

NEARY: This is the first time Americans are getting a close-up glimpse of the pope and getting a chance to hear what he has to say about such controversial issues. Even now, 46,000 people are gathering at the Nationals stadium in Washington D.C. to celebrate mass with the pontiff.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty is covering the story.

Barbara, this is an amazing production, isn't it?

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's quite an understatement, Lynn. Placido Domingo and Denise Graves are performing. There are four choirs including a children's choir. The pope delivers his homily and then 300 bishops and priests will be on hand to distribute the communion - in record time, I might add. I believer they're trying to serve 46,000 people in under 15 minutes. That's pretty good.

Now, this isn't just America's chance to see the pope for the first time. It's also the pope's chance to look at the American church for the first time. And what he's going to see, Lynn, is a church that is literally changing before his eyes. The prayers will be said in a half a dozen languages. So it's going to be Korean, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Spanish. And so you see a real diversity here.

And of course as you know, the group that has grown the most in the American church is Latino Catholics, primarily immigrants. So there's going to be a lot of that.

NEARY: Do we have any idea of what Pope Benedict is going to say?

HAGERTY: Well, initially people thought that the pope might try to scold the American church, because it's so independent on things like contraception and gay rights and things like that. But Benedict will probably encourage the church instead.

He's said in the past, you know, that he really admires the American church for its vibrancy. It's by far the most committed church in the West. Nearly 25 percent of all Americans are Catholic, compared to Europe, where churches are basically empty and Benedict's efforts to jump start the faith there have been rebuffed. So one of his goals, being a professor as well as a pope, is to encourage Americans and also to challenge them to go deeper in their faith.

NEARY: As we mentioned, this is the first time that Americans are getting a really good look at this new pope. What is their reaction so far? Do you know?

HAGERTY: Well, gauging from the demands for tickets, he has more than piqued their interest. But, you know, a lot of people, including Catholics who go to church every single week, know little or nothing about him. I've talked to a lot of people and they have been pleasantly surprised by this pope, because his first two encyclicals were positive. They were on hope and love.

But I have to say, Lynn, that others, especially liberal Catholics and young people, are a bit weary of him. Pope Benedict, before he was pope, was Joseph Ratzinger who was the head of the Vatican department called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which basically polices theological purity. And he's investigated and disciplined some liberal theologians. So some people have worried that he's very conservative and he won't reach out to the world in the kind of charismatic way that John Paul II did.

NEARY: Yesterday, he met with President Bush at the White House. Any idea of some of the themes of this visit? Did he lay them out during the speech there?

HAGERTY: Yeah, you could see the themes. The president brought up one of them. He used Benedict's famous phrase, the dictatorship of relativism - the idea that there is no absolute truth. And that's one of the things that the pope has vowed to battle. And the pope himself echoed that theme in his own remarks. He quoted John Paul II as saying in a world without truth freedom loses its foundation, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul.

So I think what you're seeing here is this sense of going for absolute truth and he wants to bring that message home to Americans.

NEARY: NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty. Thanks for being with us, Barbara.

HAGERTY: You're welcome.

NEARY: To read more about the pope's U.S. visit and see where his modern predecessors have traveled over the decades go to npr.org.

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