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Pier Paolo Cito, Associated Press
Pope Benedict XVI walks the edge of the stage after celebrating Mass on Sunday at Yankee Stadium in New York City.

NEW YORK — At Yankee Stadium Sunday, the Papal Crest covered the pitcher's mound and an altar covered second base. Choirs performed at home plate, and dozens of priests and bishops sat at first and third.

The old Bronx infield had been transformed into an open-air church as Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass for 65,000 people on the final day of his first visit to the U.S. that started last week.

Pope Benedict is the successor to Pope John Paul II, who died three years ago after leading the church for nearly three decades. For many Catholics at the stadium Sunday, part of

their reason for coming to the stadium Mass was to see the new leader for the first time, they said. Getting a papal blessing for rosaries or other items also topped the list.

"It is a thrill to see the pope," said Nancy Hirten of Long Island, who came with 11 family members, including her 82-year-old mother and brother, Father Tim Hirten, who is a chaplain at Altus Air Force Base in Oklahoma. "You can feel the excitement in the air."

"It is a great feeling to feel the presence of the Holy Father," said Flo Lee, part of the three-person delegation from Altus Air Force Base. "I will listen to him for hope, peace and love for the whole nation. We all have one faith, and I want everyone to come together."

Lee said attending a papal Mass is a "once in a lifetime experience."

"You can say I was there," Lee said.

The atmosphere inside the stadium had dramatic shifts throughout the day. Before the pope arrived, Harry Connick Jr., Jose Feliciano and numerous other musicians and choirs entertained the crowd.

The excited attendees did "the wave" and carried cardboard boxes of hot dogs and fries as the long wait for the Mass seemed it would never end. They chanted "Ben-ne-dict-to!" and sang along with hymns performed on stage.

The pontiff arrived via his popemobile drawing a thunderous outburst from the crowd as they twirled gold or white handkerchiefs in the air — the official colors of the Vatican. As he got out of his car and disappeared into the dugout to change into vestments for the Mass, the enthusiastic crowd started chanting "We want the Pope!" and "Viva Papa!"

As the service started, the crowed became calmer — even silent except for the rumble of the subway train behind the stadium — as the traditional parts of the Mass unfolded, including distribution of Communion throughout the stands.

The pope used his final homily in America to recognize the growth of the church and the challenges it still faces.

"The church in America has been built up in fidelity to the twin commandment of love of God and love of neighbor," Pope Benedict said. "In this land of freedom and opportunity, the church has united a widely diverse flock in the profession of the faith and through her many educational, charitable and social works, has also contributed significantly to the growth of American society as a whole."

"Today's celebration is more than an occasion of gratitude for graces received," the pope said. "It is also a summons to move forward with firm resolve to use wisely the blessings of freedom in order to build a future of hope for coming generations."

As part of the younger generation of Catholics, 19-year-old Stephen Prisk, who came to the stadium with 50 friends from northern New Jersey, noted, "It is a special experience to be able to celebrate with him."

Prisk said the pope is encouraging American Catholics to "keep holding true to the traditions of the church."

"His message is for us to keep true to our message of faith in this culture of death in society," Prisk said.

Rob Wenzel, 16, of Philadelphia won an essay contest at Father Judge High School to attend the Mass. He wanted to attend to help deepen his faith.

"He's the leader of our faith," Wenzel said. "It's a historical event. Not everyone can say they were there to see the pope."

Standing near a refreshment stand inside the stadium, Seminarian Joseph Pavone acknowledged there was a strange combination of the secular stadium and holiest of celebrations but noted, "it's a reverent atmosphere."

"It's a memory I don't think you can ever forget," Pavone said. "I always pray for the pope."

Pavone, who still has seven years until he would be ordained a priest, said the pope brings a message of encouragement and support for young Catholics, especially those entering religious life.

"It's very difficult in today's world and he helps us persevere in our journey," Pavone said. "It's a blessing for him to be here."

Pope Benedict had started the day off at ground zero. He met with survivors of some who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and rescue workers during a ceremony.

Late Sunday, the pontiff concluded his historic visit and bid farewell to the masses, saying his days "have been blessed with many memorable experiences of American hospitality."

More than 4,000 people — including Vice President Dick Cheney, bishops and cardinals from around the country and people from around the world — came to Kennedy International Airport to get a last glimpse of the pontiff before his return to Rome.

In a ceremony before boarding the plane, the pope thanked all those who made the trip possible and said a high point was addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations.

"My visit this morning to ground zero will remain firmly etched in my memory, as I continue to pray for those who died and for all who suffer in consequence of the tragedy that occurred there in 2001," Pope Benedict said. "For all the people of America, and indeed throughout the world, I pray that the future will bring increased fraternity and solidarity, a growth in mutual respect, and a renewed trust and confidence in God, our Heavenly Father."

Contributing: Leah Rae and Gary Stern, Gannett News Service

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