WASHINGTON (AFP) — Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate mass next month at a brand-new baseball stadium in Washington before some 45,000 Catholics, the archbishop of Washington said Thursday, adding that demand for places has exceeded the church's expectations.
"We have had a huge response from every sector, far more than we anticipated," Archbishop Donald Wuerl told reporters.
"We are still in the process of finalizing how many seats there will be... we had to get special permission to put chairs on the field. We are anticipating 45,000 places," he said.
"There are so many people who want to be at that stadium mass," which Benedict XVI will celebrate on April 17, the third day of his first visit as pope to the United States, said Wuerl.
"I hope when he turns around at that altar and looks out over those 45,000 people, what he will see is a slice of our country, which is really the face of the world," said Wuerl.
"Think of all the different ethnic and cultural traditions that will be represented in that park. There will be young and old, rich and poor... every ethnic tradition, background, cultural heritage will be there," he said.
More than 100,000 requests for tickets have been received, Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman at the archdiocese of Washington, told AFP.
"We could easily fill the stadium twice," she said.
Media demand to cover the mass and the rest of the five-day papal visit has also exceeded the expectations of the church.
More than 5,000 requests for media accreditation were filed with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).
And, said Wuerl: "The number of media places requested at the ballpark is huge, too. It's a blessing just realizing how many people want to be there."
The mass will be the first non-sports event held at the brand-new stadium of the Nationals baseball team on the banks of the Anacostia River in southeast Washington.
"In fact, it's coming just a few weeks after the first ballgame at the park," which is in the finishing stages of construction, said Wuerl.
"We have tried to divide tickets up so that they will go out all over the country," Wuerl said.
"Just to determine who gets what seat, we had a lottery. In one basket, we put the names of the parish and in another the names of the seating locations, and then had them drawn out anonymously by priests. Then I could say: 'I didn't do it, this was collaboratively done.'"
Specially printed, seat-specific tickets for the mass will be sent out to selected recipients a few weeks beforehand.
With demand outstripping supply, some are worried that a black market for the tickets, which are free of charge, will arise and tickets will be sold to the highest bidder on websites like e-Bay, the popular Internet auction site.
"With all the technology today, as I understand it, it would be possible to cancel the code on the ticket, so that going into the park, the ticket would be invalidated.
"So if a ticket shows up on e-Bay, it will probably end up being worthless," Wuerl said.
"But our hope is that most people who asked for tickets would really cherish that ticket and would want to hold onto it."
German-born Benedict XVI is due to begin his visit to the United States on April 15 in Washington.
The following day -- his 81st birthday -- he will be received at the White House and pray at the largest Catholic church in North America, the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
After the mass at Nationals Park on April 17, he will address educators from 235 Catholic colleges and universities and hold talks with representatives of the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faiths.
Benedict will leave Washington on April 18 for New York, where he will say two masses, including one at Yankee baseball stadium; address the United Nations, and visit Ground Zero, site of the main September 11, 2001 attacks.
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