Pope Benedict celebrated his first mass in the United States in a ceremony that mixed the solemn rites of the Catholic Church with the fervor of a rock concert.

The crowd leapt to its feet and cheered wildly at 9:30 a.m. when the pontiff entered the stadium in his popemobile, slowly circling the ballfield, to the accompaniment of organ music and Gregorian chants.

Four choirs, totaling 570 singers, provided a backdrop for the mass, during which readings and songs were conducted in English, Latin, Italian, Spanish, French, Vietnamese, Tagalog, Korean and Igbo, an African tongue.

The pope's introductory remarks drew a standing ovation, and, when he sat, the crowd's zeal prompted him to stand again with open arms.

SURPRISE FIRST MEETING

The real drama happened privately, in the chapel of the papal embassy between events as Benedict met for the first time with people who had been sexually abused by priests.

The pontiff -- who requested the meeting, which was not disclosed in advance -- and Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley talked with a group of five or six clergy sex-abuse victims for about 25 minutes, offering them encouragement and hope.

"They prayed together. Also, each of them had their own individual time with the Holy Father," said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a spokesman. "Some were in tears."

It was the church's most dramatic step yet to acknowledge the harm caused by the clergy and it made clear that for all the messages that Benedict wished to send during his six-day U.S. trip, the one concerning priestly abuse was most central.

Three of the survivors, speaking on CNN on Thursday, reacted positively. Bernie McDaid said he wished the meeting had happened sooner, but that he felt afterward that the victims would get "not just words but action."

Olan Horne said, "My hope is restored today." He said the pope spoke frankly and that the victims were with him longer than they expected.

TEACHER TO DIPLOMAT

The pontiff then went from pastor to teacher to diplomat on his last day in Washington. He gave a substantial address to about 200 college presidents and the superintendents of Catholic schools, stressing the importance for parochial schools to stay open, especially to serve immigrants and the underprivileged. He also used the occasion to clarify limits, saying that although academic freedom is valuable, it must not be used to "justify positions that contradict the faith and the teaching of the Church."

He had additional healing to do at his evening encounter with Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religious leaders. On a trip, to his German homeland, Benedict had set off anger with comments that appeared to denigrate Islam. He also offended Jewish leaders by reinstituting a prayer for the conversion of the Jews in the Latin prayers on Good Friday.

On Thursday, he offered an olive branch to Jewish leaders, and affirmed that all religions should have a common goal of working for peace.

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