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04/20/08 3:35 PM ET

Papal visit adds to Cathedral's legend

Pope Benedict XVI conducts third mass at Yankee Stadium

NEW YORK -- Pope Benedict XVI celebrated mass at Yankee Stadium on Sunday before more than 60,000, taking center stage of an iconic structure that has been referred to both as a great cathedral and as hallowed ground.

Cheered by a joyous crowd, Benedict made the third visit by a Pope for a mass at Yankee Stadium, a record for any single venue in the United States. Benedict arrived in the Bronx around 2:15 p.m. ET and, riding in the Popemobile, entered the Stadium's playing field through a gate in left-center field.

Rolling down the vehicle's bulletproof windows as he circled the warning track, Benedict received a loud ovation from tens of thousands of Roman Catholics, chanting, clapping and waving white and yellow handkerchiefs in the Vatican's colors.

Later, as Benedict exited the vehicle and prepared for mass in what is normally the umpire's dressing room, the crowd chanted "Ben-e-dict" in anticipation of the rare event.

Benedict called the mass "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."

Crowds began filling the Stadium at 9 a.m., more than five hours before the Pope's arrival, and a heavy police presence was visible both in the Stadium and on surface streets. A Concert of Hope was performed at noon. Tickets were distributed free through the Archdiocese of New York and its many parishes for the approximately 2 1/2-hour ceremony.

"The visit by His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI is wonderful for New York, our nation and indeed the world," Yankees principal owner George M. Steinbrenner said in a statement. "His message of brotherhood rings loud and clear. We welcome him to Yankee Stadium with respect, reverence and enthusiasm."

Construction to transform Yankee Stadium from a sports facility to a place of worship began almost immediately following the Yankees' game against the Red Sox on Thursday, with workers laying down flooring to cover the infield.

A white altar perched over second base and the Papal seal covered the pitcher's mound, suspended by white and yellow ribbons. The outfield walls were covered in white, purple and yellow, and the outfield advertisements that span the bleachers were either blacked out or re-affixed with purple and yellow bunting.

"I have never seen Yankee Stadium so beautiful, and I have season tickets," Philip Giordano, 49, a tax attorney from Greenwich, Conn., told The Associated Press. "It sure beats sitting in my local church."

Added Giordano's wife, Suzanne: "I'm hoping to feel something from [Benedict]. Everyone who has seen him says they crumple, their knees buckle. You come away just feeling different."

Following the mass, some 500 priests and deacons were to meet the challenge of offering communion to tens of thousands of people in only 14 minutes, lining the stairwells and rows of the Stadium.

Pope Benedict XVI's six-day visit to the United States began when he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday. His itinerary included visits to the White House, a mass at Nationals Park in Washington and an address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It was just the fourth time a Pope has visited New York City.

Earlier Sunday, Benedict took part in a solemn ceremony at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan, blessing the victims, families and rescue workers of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center. In his prayer, Benedict asked for God to bring healing to those affected by the attacks on New York, Shanksville, Pa., and the Pentagon.

In honor of the Pope's visit, the Knights of Columbus donated a lasting memorial of the mass, a bronze plaque to be displayed in Yankee Stadium's Monument Park. The pontiff was expected to bless the plaque in a private ceremony before the mass. Plaques are also displayed in Monument Park from the 1965 and '79 masses.

In its final season of service before the Yankees move to a new $1.3 billion facility across the street for the 2009 campaign, Yankee Stadium has a long history of hosting events of religious and political importance. Pope Paul VI delivered the first Mass by a Roman pontiff in the United States on Oct. 4, 1965, at the Stadium, and Pope John Paul II celebrated mass in the Bronx on Oct. 2, 1979.

In addition to the three Papal Masses, the Rev. Billy Graham preached and Cardinal Spellman celebrated Mass in the Bronx in 1957. A Jehovah's Witnesses convention drew a single-day Stadium record 123,707 people in 1958, and Nelson Mandela was welcomed in 1990. Most recently, a "Prayer for America" service was held at Yankee Stadium on Sept. 23, 2001, honoring those lost in the attacks 12 days prior.

The Pope's schedule prompted the Yankees to modify their 2008 schedule, creating a situation in which they will play 18 of 20 games on the road in April.

Barring any changes to the schedule, the total would be the most road games by any team in the month in Major League history. The Yankees were in Baltimore playing the final game of a three-game series when the Pope started to speak.

"I wish I would have been [in New York]," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I would like to see the Pope, but we have business in Baltimore. It's pretty special for our country and for the city of New York to be able to go through this."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.