Pope Benedict Yearning to Heal His Flock

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Healing has become the keyword of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United States. On Saturday, not only did the Pope speak again about the priest sex abuse crisis, but he also addressed festering Church divisions in the wake of the Second Vatican council and reflected on his native country's Nazi past.

But perhaps the most notable comfort that this cerebral pontiff offered his flock is his ever more pastoral persona. Entering a morning mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Benedict beamed as several thousand priests and nuns welcomed him with thunderous applause. As the mass ended, he spoke off-the-cuff, saying that the love expressed by the clergy helps him to overcome his own "spiritual poverty."

Later, at a chapel in Yonkers, he hugged two young disabled girls, before moving to an outdoor rally with seminarians and Catholic youth. As the crowd chanted "Viva il papa! Viva il papa!" (Long live the Pope!), Benedict seemed almost like his charismatic predecessor John Paul II, going off script, and saluting from every corner of the stage.

The hope for the theologian Pope is that the affection he is generating will make more people listen to his incisive — sometimes poetic — prose. "Friends," he asked the evening crowd of tens of thousands of young people, "what about today? What are you seeking? What is God whispering to you? The hope which never disappoints is Jesus Christ."

Benedict's morning homily at the landmark 5th Avenue cathedral included a first-ever papal plea to repair damages from the ideological battles that followed the 1960s Second Vatican Council. "One of the great disappointments which followed the Second Vatican Council, with its call for a greater engagement in the Church's mission to the world, has been the experience of division between different groups, different generations, different members of the same religious family," he said. "We can only move forward if we turn our gaze together to Christ! In the light of faith, we will then discover the wisdom and strength needed to open ourselves to a point of view, which may not necessarily conform to our own ideas." This call for unity comes from a Pope who was seen as a touchstone for much of the divisions when he was a senior Vatican Cardinal.

But the continuing evolution of the 81-year-old Pope was also reflected in the memories he shared later with the young people about his own youth in Nazi Germany. Though he had spoken about the Holocaust on a visit in 2006, bringing it up in New York — and making it personal — carried a new significance. "My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers" and "banished God and thus became imperious to anything true and good." He told his young listeners to thank God that they had instead grown up in a society that promotes democracy and human rights, but warned that "the power to destroy does remain," embodied in social ills such as drug abuse, homelessness and poverty, racism violence degradation of girls and women, and — no surprise here, at this point in his visit — false freedom and "relativism."

Before the trip began Tuesday, the St. Patrick's Cathedral Mass had been billed as the moment the Pope would broach the topic of the U.S. Church's sex abuse crisis. But having already spoken three different times about the crisis since arriving — and offering a poignant and unprecedented private meeting with victims of abusive priests — Benedict focused his remarks in New York on the need to repair the bond between the faithful and their priests. He prayed for "purification" and "healing," assuring the priests of his "spiritual closeness as you strive to respond with Christian hope to the continuing challenges that this situation presents."

The eloquent homily used the Cathedral itself as a metaphor for his message of the Christian quest. "The spires of Saint Patrick's church are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the New York 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."