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The 46,000 "fans" didn't come to see the Washington Nationals; they came to participate in a Mass led by Benedict XVI. Opening events at the stadium began a full four hours prior to the Pope's arrival.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Zenit) - The streams of people pouring into the glistening new Nationals stadium today weren't the usual baseball-loving crowds. Many sported T-shirts saying "I love the Pope" or hats with "I love Jesus" printed on them.

A closer look showed hundreds of priests hearing confessions in makeshift confessionals or chairs in corners or crannies. There was a palpable sense of joy in the stadium as the bleachers filled.

The 46,000 "fans" didn't come to see the Washington Nationals; they came to participate in a Mass led by Benedict XVI. Opening events at the stadium began a full four hours prior to the Pope's arrival.

And when the Holy Father did arrive -- beneath bright skies and warm morning sun -- roaring applause and exuberance met him.

The Machado family was in the stadium and very happy to see the Pontiff. They made the cross-country trip all the way from Idaho. Sandy Machado, mother of five between the ages of 2 and 10, told us: "Washington is a lot closer than Rome, so we decided to make the once-in-a-lifetime trip to see the Pope."

Fred Scharf and Laura Frances Ferstl, both young adult volunteers for the event, said they decided to help out at Nationals stadium when they realized they probably wouldn't get a ticket any other way. Scharf said he was most impressed with the theme of the Pope's visit "Christ Our Hope."

"With all the things that are going on in the world and all the big questions of life, the Catholic faith answers all those questions," he said.

Around the world

The dome of the nation's Capital Building is visible from the upper decks of the stadium -- and the American Catholics inside the stadium expressed appreciation for the history of the Church in their country.

Washington's Archbishop Donald Wuerl was met with excited applause when he mentioned the arrival of the first Catholics to American in 1634, not far from where the stadium sits today. The archbishop then listed the many countries from where Catholic immigrants have come -- immigrants who now call America home.

Mass got under way in a blend of English, Spanish and Latin. It was a Mass of the Holy Spirit, reminiscent of Pentecost -- with the music and prayers in languages from around the world.

A gift

Mother Adela Galindo, founder of the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary based in Miami, Florida, said: "It is such a gift that the Holy Father is here."

She noted how the Pope's message from the homily today was consistent with what he has been saying since the beginning of his papacy.

"For the last three years his message has been the same," Mother Galindo said. "He is calling us Christians to be witnesses to love and witnesses to hope. I think the way he has presented it over the years, beginning with his encyclical 'God is Love,' he is saying look at the world, there is so much despair, so much brokenness and so much woundedness, and it is us who are responsible to show the path of love to the world, which is the only path of hope."

She recalled how Benedict XVI clearly addressed the issue of the sexual abuse scandal that affected the Church a few years ago.

"He is a good shepherd, he addresses the issue [of the sexual abuse]; he is not afraid to speak up on the issue because we cannot hide the darkness and the wounds," the religious added. "At the same time, the wonderful thing is his balance.It is true that some children in the Church have experienced this tremendous suffering in the heart of the Church. And the rest of the children in the family, what do they do? If there is a child in a family who has committed a crime, what do the other children do? We take responsibility because we love the family. This is what he was calling us to today."

"There is a splendor to the Church but there is a wound on the face of the Church by the scandals. All of us are responsible, as sons and daughters of the Church, to show the true splendor of the Church -- just like in a family -- through our love, our commitment and fidelity and our witness."

Singing to God

Music from today's Mass was an eclectic blend representing many ages and cultures, everything from traditional hymns and chants, to African-American spirituals, a traditional Caribbean hymn, and even a refrain from Zimbabwe.

Some 300 priests helped to distribute holy Communion to the vast crowds, keeping the process to just over 20 minutes, thanks to logistical masterminding.

And the crowd was hushed as Placido Domingo performed the "Panis Angelicus" following Communion. When he finished, the crowd applauded, and Benedict XVI stood to greet the famous tenor, who kissed the Holy Father's ring.

After a final solemn blessing, a smiling Pope walked through the crowd as security guards tried to keep the path at least moderately open. He stopped to bless and kiss a baby and to bless a man in a wheelchair.

As Benedict XVI disappeared into the home team dugout to leave the Mass, a post-liturgy concert began to get under way.

Priestly healing

Father Joseph Rogers, of the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C, concelebrated today's Mass. He said: "I think the Holy Father, by choosing the votive Mass of the Holy Spirit, was giving us a sign of his greater intentions for the Church of America, [that is] to confirm, by his Petrine authority, the new pentecost, the new evangelization, which is a sign of hope in a world that so needs the love of Christ."

"He spoke so clearly and simply as a father of the faith addressing the problems of the Church," the priest continued. "I was in the presbytery when he addressed the crisis in the Church.

When he said 'Love your priests,' I think he opened up a special gateway to healing in the hearts of priests. I believe that many faithtful priests who have suffered had their hearts open to love in a new way."

Valerie Grays, of Baltimore, who attends St. Francis Xavier Parish, the oldest African-American church in the United States, said she was happy and proud to see the Catholics of America come together today for the Mass: "It just felt like we were so united. With this and that happening, which seems to divide us all the time, it is wonderful to experience the unity and sense of patriotism that was here today."

[Kathleen Naab contributed to this article]



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