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In the presence of the pope: Sacred Heart Church members cherish memories of pontiff’s visit

For a group of Bayside Catholics, Pope Benedict XVI's visit to New York City was the greatest experience of their lives.

Eleven members of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church were specially chosen to represent the parish during the pontiff's visit to a Westchester seminary Saturday and a mass at Yankee Stadium Sunday. Although none of the parishioners actually got the chance to greet the pope in person, many said they felt enlightened just being within his presence and hearing his message of hope in person.

"I'll tell you, it felt great. It was like the All-Star Game of All-Star Games for Catholics," said Bill McNamara, 60, of Bayside, who went to Yankee Stadium with his wife Alice.

On Saturday, Benedict visited troves of younger Catholics at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers. Sixteen-year-old Sacred Heart parishioner Armand Cognam, a sophomore at Holy Cross High School in Flushing, said the solemn atmosphere turned into a rock concert once the Holy Father entered the stage.

"A lot of people were going crazy. When we saw the Popemobile, everyone was cheering," said Cognam, who waited for nearly five hours just to be close to the stage.

Cognam, who attended the service with fellow teen parishioners Charles Lempert and Breeana Mulligan, said most of the adolescent audience was moved by Benedict's speech that focused on devotion to the Catholic faith.

"He was telling us to have courage and that he believes in us. I got the impression that he really does care because we are the future," said Breeana, 15, who attends the Mary Louis Academy in Jamaica Estates.

The spiritual tour continued at the House that Ruth Built the next afternoon, where Marianne Cooney, Sacred Heart's parish pastoral council leader, and other parishioners saw him celebrate mass. Cooney said she was amazed at the number of New Yorkers who packed the 57,000-seat stadium for the service and felt proud that New York's faithful came out to show their pride.

"Everyone around me seemed pleased with everything," she said. "People were pleasantly surprised when he came to New York because he showed he was a humble person."

The Sacred Heart parishioners conceded that Benedict was not as charismatic as his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, who traveled to every continent except Antarctica during his 26-year tenure, but said his personality was still remarkable.

Brenda Wohlfarth, who converted to Catholicism last year, recounted how the pontiff chuckled when a Yankee Stadium audience member shouted "We love you."

"He really spoke from the heart and he was really open to receive everyone. There really is a human side to him," said the Floral Park resident, who was sitting near first base with her husband, Eugene.

The parishioners were most impressed with the pope's candid talk about the sex abuse scandal involving priests in the United States. Before landing in Washington, D.C. last week, Benedict acknowledged that the church did not handle the scandal well and later had a private meeting with adult victims.

"He touched on it, that we are not perfect and it is something that we need to heal on," Cooney said.

The parishioners said they hoped other Catholics in the city and the nation would look at the pope's visit and view Benedict as a humble, caring leader.

"I really thought that he let his hair down," McNamara said. "In Washington, he was a little stiff and serious, but when he got to St. Patrick's, he loosened up."

Reach reporter Ivan Pereira by e-mail at ipereira@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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