Pope shows a more personal side

Times Staff Writer

Admirers saw an unusually personal side of Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday when he ad-libbed a reference to his faults and sins and later spoke of the “sinister” Nazi regime that was the backdrop of his youth.

Both passages uttered by the pope were remarkable in their frankness and came as the German-born theologian observed the third anniversary of his election as pontiff.

On the penultimate day of his six-day pilgrimage to the U.S., Benedict presided over Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan and exhorted members of a depleted priesthood to overcome hurtful divisions and act “as beacons of light” in the service of the church. Later in the day he turned his attention to the next generation of church leaders, telling a huge youth rally of the “limitless expanse of the horizons of Christian discipleship.”

The pope stepped into St. Patrick’s, a cavernous Gothic landmark with dramatic spires and intricate stained-glass windows, and strode to the gilded altar amid thunderous applause and cheers from some 3,000 priests, deacons and nuns who crossed themselves at his presence and quickly snapped photographs.

“The spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline,” the pope, wearing a gold-encrusted miter and robes, said in the homily, “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.” It was the first time a pope has said Mass in what is arguably the nation’s most renowned house of Roman Catholic worship.


At the end of the Mass, a visibly moved pope rose and delivered an impromptu message in halting English, describing himself as a “poor successor” to St. Peter who counts on the love and prayers of his followers to fulfill his daunting mission.

“I will do all possible to be a real successor to St. Peter, who also was a man with his faults and sins, but who remains finally the rock for the church,” he said. “I can only thank you for your love of the church, for the love of our Lord and that you give also your love to the poor successor of St. Peter.”

Benedict is known for having a humble touch, and Americans are seeing his personal side gradually revealed on this trip. Mostly what they have seen is the impressive pageantry that accompanies the world’s most powerful religious figure -- regal ceremonies shown live on television with the gushing commentary of emotional broadcasters.

Though his spoken words are often abstract, highly intellectual and delivered with a heavy German accent, several direct messages have come through, most notably his repeated condemnation of pedophilia by priests.

Later Saturday, Benedict again offered a glimpse of his personal background when he addressed seminarians at the St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers and urged them to overcome “activities and mind-sets which stifle hope.”

“My own years as a teenager were marred by a sinister regime that thought it had all the answers. Its influence grew, infiltrating schools and civic bodies, as well as politics and even religion, before it was fully recognized for the monster it was,” he said. “It banished God and thus became impervious to anything true and good.”

Benedict said the “horror and destruction that ensued” probably formed part of the history of some of the seminarians’ own grandparents and great-grandparents.

Nazism swept through Bavaria, where the pope, then Joseph Ratzinger, grew up during the 1930s. Catholic groups were forced to meet in secret, and crucifixes were removed from classrooms, often replaced with pictures of Adolf Hitler. The young Ratzinger was schooled in a seminary that was eventually taken over by the Nazis and, like many teenagers of the day, he joined the Hitler Youth out of fear of retaliation.

Benedict does not discuss that history publicly very often, so its inclusion, though brief in an otherwise long speech, was telling. Taken with the earlier words of humility, Benedict allowed a little more insight to his persona and his personal history, a counterpoint to the image many in the U.S. have of him as a taciturn and rigid leader.

“It was impressive to hear someone of his stature and fame speak with such humility, but it also seems that it fits right in with the attitude he’s taken throughout this trip,” said Father Gerald Horan, superintendent of Catholic schools in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in California, who attended the St. Patrick’s event.

“He’s made it clear he wasn’t here to criticize, but to affirm all the good things going on with the church,” Horan added. “One would have the impression that he’s maybe been a little stunned and surprised by the warm welcome he’s received and is being so warm in return.”

The pope also addressed, for the fourth time in five days, the clergy sexual-abuse crisis that has devastated the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and cost it more than $2 billion in legal settlements.

At the St. Patrick’s Mass, he spoke of the need for “purification” throughout the church and its religious orders, and urged all of the faithful to unite and “move forward in hope.” Later, he blessed dozens of disabled children, telling them they symbolized “a meaning and purpose for all human life.”

He ended the day at a huge open-air rally with nearly 30,000 seminarians and religious youths, thanking them and their parents for their decision to join the priesthood, the sisterhood and orders. Many parts of the U.S. face a shortage of priests or an aging clergy that is not being replenished; more than one-sixth of the country’s parishes no longer have a resident priest.

“Viva!” the crowd shouted as the pope, beaming, stepped to the edge of the stage. He received offerings of bread from selected young students. He looked tired, but happy.

Ending his speech, he began to push away the microphone to leave when an aide rushed to his side and whispered that he had a passage in Spanish to read.

“Oh! I forgot my Spanish part,” Benedict told the crowd, letting out a soft chuckle before addressing the rally in Spanish and thanking the attendees for their kindness.



Times staff writer Rebecca Trounson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.