Pope Benedict XVI ended his six-day visit to the United States with a jubilant mass at the 57,000-seat Yankee Stadium. From VOA's New York Bureau, correspondent Barbara Schoetzau reports the leader of the world's one billion Catholics praised the United States' tradition of religious freedom at the service.
On his arrival, the pontiff circled the packed stadium in his popemobile. The crowds waved handkerchiefs of white and yellow, the Vatican colors, and roared their approval with the sort of noisy enthusiasm that is usually reserved for rock concerts.
During his homily, Pope Benedict addressed the issue of unity, which has been a theme of his visit. He also celebrated the bicentennial of Catholic dioceses in Baltimore, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Louisville, Kentucky and the tradition of religious freedom in the United States, which, he said, allowed successive waves of immigrants to build networks of strong churches and institutions.
"In this land of religious liberty, Catholics found freedom not only to practice their faith but also to participate fully in civic life, bringing the deepest moral convictions to the public square and cooperating with their neighbors in shaping a vibrant, democratic society," said Pope Benedict XVI.
The pontiff also delivered comments in Spanish, recognizing a growing Catholic population in the United States.
More than 550 priests were on hand to distribute communion to the participants.
Just before the mass began hundreds of doves were released at the end of a two-hour Concert of Hope that enlisted the participation of such major entertainment figures as tenor Ronan Tynan, Jose Feliciano, opera star Marcello Giord and Harry Connick Junior.
Many political figures were also in attendance, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He said that Benedict's visit raised his profile, especially his willingness to address tough issues such as the sexual abuse scandal that has wracked the American Catholic Church in recent years.
"He is somebody who nobody knew a lot about before and I think his speeches have really gone a long way towards endearing himself to New Yorkers and Americans," said Michael Bloomberg. "He did not walk away from some bad things from the past. He addressed them, he pointed them out and he said we have to fix them, make sure it does not happen again, carry forward."
The mass marked the third - and last - time that a Pope has led religious services at the legendary Yankee Stadium. The stadium is being replaced at the end of the 2008 baseball season with a new facility.