NEW YORK -- Admirers saw an unusually personal side of Pope Benedict XVI yesterday 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 United States, Pope 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 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, in 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 the first pontiff.
"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," Pope Benedict 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."
Although Pope Benedict is known for having a humble touch, Americans are only seeing his personal side gradually revealed on this trip.
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 yesterday, pope 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 mindsets, 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."
Nazism swept through the Bavaria that the pope, then Joseph Ratzinger, grew up in during the 1930s. Catholic groups were forced to meet in secret, and crucifixes were removed from classrooms. 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.
Pope 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, he allowed a little more insight into 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.
Yesterday, the pope also addressed, for the fourth time in five days, the clergy sexual-abuse crisis.
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."
Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times.