NEW YORK - Pope Benedict XVI focused on the future of his American church Saturday as he marked the third anniversary of his election as pontiff, rallying young people, priests and seminarians and assuring them of his support as they dealt with the damage from the clergy sex abuse scandal.
On a highly personal day, he spoke of his own 'spiritual poverty' and said he hoped to be a worthy successor to St. Peter, considered the first pope.
Benedict began the day with a Mass at St. Patrick's cathedral, the landmark Roman Catholic church on Fifth Avenue. The building was packed with cardinals and bishops, priests and nuns, who cheered him to mark the day he succeeded Pope John Paul II on April 19, 2005.
The German-born pope lamented that what he called 'the joy of faith' was often choked by cynicism, greed and violence. Yet he drew an analogy to show how faith can overcome distractions and trials.
'The spires of St. Patrick's Cathedral are dwarfed by the skyscrapers of the Manhattan skyline, 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,' he said.
In America in particular, he has said repeatedly, the religious intensity stands out in marked contrast to the tepid spiritual emphasis in his native Europe. That makes the U.S. a testing ground for him in his bid to counter secular trends in the world.
He also returned Saturday to the sex abuse scandal that he said has caused 'so much suffering' for the American church, assuring his audience 'of my spiritual closeness as you strive to respond with Christian hope to the continuing challenges that this situation presents.'
It was the fourth time he has spoken of the scandal since beginning his pilgrimage Tuesday. While in Washington, he met with a small group of victims from the Boston Archdiocese, where the scandal boiled over in 2002. It was believed to be the first time a pope had met with victims of clerical sex abuse.
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi, meeting with reporters Saturday, was asked if the scandal had dominated the agenda of the trip. He denied that, saying it was part of the central theme of the entire visit, 'to give hope to the church in the United States.'
He later was driven to St. Joseph's Seminary in nearby Yonkers, for a rally with young Catholics and seminary. Upon arriving he blessed about 50 disabled youngsters in the seminary chapel. Two small girls gave him a painting and a hug.
At the end of the St. Patrick's service, Benedict was clearly moved when his top assistant, Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, read a tribute for the third anniversary.
Benedict told the crowd of 3,000 that 'I am deeply thankful' for the support they showed him, and for 'your love, your prayers.'
The Rev. Michael Morris, a professor of church history at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, where a youth rally was organized for the pontiff Saturday, attended the Mass, and was among those cheering 'Viva il Papa!' as Benedict passed by.
Morris, 47, credits John Paul's 1979 trip to the United States with drawing him toward the priesthood. He hoped Benedict's visit would inspire young men today to do the same.