WASHINGTON - Pope Benedict XVI presided over a Mass celebrated in 10 languages Thursday, calling the United States a land of opportunity and hope but decrying that the nation's promise has been left unfulfilled for some.
At the first public Mass of his U.S. pilgrimage, Benedict mixed praise for the American experience with an effort to touch consciences, something he has been doing since the start of his trip on Tuesday.
More than 45,000 people filled Nationals Park on a clear spring day, as the pope, wearing scarlet vestments, led the service from an altar erected in centerfield of the recently inaugurated baseball stadium. Rows of red-robed church leaders joined him. The enthusiastic crowd burst into cheers when Benedict entered the stadium in his popemobile.
His homily was more somber. Benedict examined American society, saying he detected anger and alienation, increasing violence and a "growing forgetfulness of God."
"Americans have always been a people of hope," he said. "Your ancestors came to this country with the experience of finding new freedom and opportunity.
"To be sure, this promise was not experienced by all the inhabitants of this land; one thinks of the injustices endured by the native American peoples and by those brought here forcibly from Africa as slaves."
It was not the first time on the trip that the pontiff has delicately critiqued his host nation.
Speaking to his American bishops Wednesday, he said the U.S. must be welcoming to immigrants, helping them to flourish in their new homes.
Following a White House visit, a joint statement from the U.S. and the Vatican hinted that Benedict raised concerns with President Bush about punitive immigration laws. It said the leaders discussed "the need for a coordinated policy regarding immigration, especially the humane treatment of immigrants and the well-being of their families."
The statement also said Bush and Benedict "touched on the need to confront terrorism with appropriate means that respect the human person and his or her rights" — an apparent reflection of the Vatican's strong condemnation of the mistreatment of prisoners.
During Thursday's Mass, Benedict worried about divisions among Catholics, and what he called the "troubling realization" that many are not following church teaching.
Benedict also turned for a third day to the clergy sex abuse scandal that has plagued the American church since 2002, saying "no words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse."
He called on parishioners to help with healing, reconciliation and assistance to the victims, but he also urged his flock to "love your priests, and to affirm them in the excellent work that they do."
At 5:45 a.m., more than four hours before the Mass, it was standing-room only on subways. Vendors hawked Vatican flags and souvenir buttons, but there were few takers as people hurried toward the stadium.
For others, there was nothing more important than getting in, and many people without tickets stood outside the subway station with signs pleading for extras.
Patty Trail, 54, pastoral associate at a church in Virginia Beach, Va., drove overnight to bring two priests to the Mass. She didn't have a ticket but said she was happy to at least be in the vicinity of the pope.
"Just to be out here, just to be in the presence," she said. "D.C. feels different."
At the end of the two-hour Mass, Benedict blessed the cheering crowd, some of them waving Vatican flags. Worried-looking papal bodyguards stood close and cleared a way for him as he walked out, while many worshippers tried to shake his hand or touch his robes.
A number of lawmakers who support abortion rights attended the Mass, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. John Kerry, the former Democratic presidential candidate. During the 2004 campaign, several bishops questioned whether Kerry should receive Communion because of his stand on abortion. The Massachusetts Democrat who took Communion from a priest far from the papal altar.
For some, the experience of Mass with Benedict was overwhelming. It made Barbara Loh of Williamsburg, Va., tear up.
"I've been Catholic all my life," she said. "My dream has always been to see the pope."