Pope Delivers Serious Message to Young Catholics

Pope Benedict XVI joined 20,000 teens at a rally in Yonkers, N.Y., Saturday night. Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II, was extremely popular with young Catholics. The rally's atmosphere was light, but the current pope's message was not.

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This afternoon Pope Benedict XVI ends his visit to the United States with a mass at New York's Yankee Stadium. Yesterday he spent the afternoon with more than 20,000 teens, young adults and seminarians at a rally in Yonkers, New York. As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports, the atmosphere was light but his message was not.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) He's able…

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: It was hot, it was dusty and it was loud. Thirteen bands and dance groups entertained the kids for six hours before the Pope's arrival. While she waited, Maria Markey, a 15-year-old sophomore from Staten Island, stood in line for free chicken fingers with several thousand other kids. She says her generation needs to hear Benedict's message about returning to a serious faith.

Ms. MARIA MARKEY (Student): I really practice my faith and I think it's good that he's encouraging other people to do so 'cause it's really important. 'Cause especially teenagers have been, like, straying off.

HAGERTY: She and other mentioned approvingly that Benedict is reviving old traditions, such as the Latin mass. And many liked the fact that he's tackled the sex abuse scandal head on. Flora Ariano(ph), a 20-year-old sophomore at St. John's College in New York, is relieved the Pope is not "keeping it in the closet."

Ms. FLORA ARIANO (Student): (unintelligible) with all the sex scandals. Like, I'm from California, and the L.A. diocese is very - they're not too happy with the Pope but I think him bridging the gap about that, addressing it, are making the diocese happier.

(Soundbite of chanting)

HAGERTY: Finally, late in the afternoon, Pope Benedict walked onto the stage.

(Soundbite of music)

HAGERTY: He smiled as the crowd sang happy birthday in German. Benedict turned 81 on Wednesday. During his speech in a rare moment of biographical candor, he recalled his youth in Nazi Germany. His own teenage years were "marred by a sinister regime."

Pope BENEDICT XVI: (Unintelligible) infiltrating schools and (unintelligible) as well as politics and even a region before it was fully recognized was a monster it was.

HAGERTY: The Pope said that unrestrained freedom too has its dangers. Drugs and violence, despair and moral relativism where there is no absolute truth. But he said truth and the Catholic faith are liberating.

Pope BENEDICT: Sometimes we are looked upon as people who speak only of prohibitions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

(Soundbite of applause)

(Soundbite of song, "Ave Maria")

Ms. KELLY CLARKSON (Singer): (Singing) Ave Maria…

HAGERTY: The rally ended with a serenade by pop star Kelly Clarkson, who was almost as big a draw for these teenagers as the Pope.

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

HAGERTY: Then Benedict rode away in his Popemobile leaving 13-year-olds Catherine Zota(ph) and Victoria Gricks(ph) and 12-year-old Courtney Mooney wanting more.

Ms. CATHERINE ZOTA (Student): It was just, like, really special to be able to, like, see the Pope in person. And…

Ms. VICTORIA GRICKS (Student): It's, like, the first time we've ever seen him probably, like, I don't know, we might not get to experience ever again.

Ms. COURTNEY MOONEY (Student): Yeah, it's a once in a lifetime experience. It's the closest thing to our Lord.

HAGERTY: Courtney adds that his speech inspired her.

Ms. MOONEY: But it's hard being a child in, like, the Christian community and think you really have to have courage to keep your faith strong.

HAGERTY: Kevin Doncour(ph), a 17-year-old high school senior says Benedict may not have the glittering charm of Pope John Paul II but he has a unique appeal.

Mr. KEVIN DONCOUR (Student): He's a theologian and he knows what he's doing, he knows what he's talking about. And in his own way I think he's bringing the people together, the faith together.

HAGERTY: And Benedict will be bringing together 57,000 people later today at Yankee Stadium.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News, New York.

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