Singing with one voice, US Catholics lift hearts to God

The "alleluias" and "amens" rose and fell as 46,000 Catholics sang with one voice in a Mass that brought together people from every diocese across the United States to worship with Pope Benedict XVI. ( dpa )

The Mass was the first of two that Benedict will give during his first, six-day US visit, which has seen him frequently address the lingering taint of child sexual abuse by priests.

But though the scandal was a major point of the pope's homily during the Mass, worshippers left the stadium feeling uplifted by a sense of unity and God's presence among them.

The service was conducted on a grand scale with 570 singers in four choirs performing in eight languages, a massive altar and a procession of 14 cardinals and 250 bishops.

Communion was given in just 30 minutes, as 300 priests dispersed into all levels of the stadium, where signs pointed the way for worshippers to proceed and return to their seats.

The voices of the participants rose into a cloudless blue sky during responses to the communion prayers as scores of servers were given the bread and wine.

Worshippers then filed up and down the stadium's concrete stairs to receive the Eucharist.

Placido Domingo's rendition of Panis Angelicus drew applause from the crowd before the opera star knelt before Benedict to receive a blessing.

The service could only be described by many who came so far to celebrate their faith and its leader as simply "awesome," "beautiful," or "once in a lifetime."

There is widespread disagreement within the US congregation over issues such as abortion and whether women should be allowed to become priests, but there was little talk of the divisions within the church on Thursday - except to say they seemed to recede amid the fervour of so many worshippers.

"One thing I noticed was it was one voice and it was the voice of the church," said James Hogan, 29, an engineer from Hyattsville, Maryland, who attended the mass with about 100 people from his church.

He described the feeling as a "wave of grace" that drew his attention from the stadium and its papal decorations and toward Christ.

"It seemed like everyone's focus was no longer on the altar, but we were communing with Jesus," he said.

Benedict's calls for revival and a renewed focus on sharing the faith with others seemed to have ignited his followers.

"There's a lot of bad influences in society and we need to live by the word of God," said Paul Kukla, 46, of Leonardtown, Maryland, who is active in the lay organization the Knights of Columbus.

He added that in addition to the sexual abuse scandal, issues such as promiscuity and violence must also be addressed. "You've got to have hope that we can do better."

The waves of excitement continued as Benedict left the stadium, pausing one last time to bless his flock - united if only for a moment in adoration for the Catholic leader.

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