VATICAN CITY – After a week marked by acts of simplicity and openness, Pope Francis finally let his words do the talking as he officially began his stewardship of the Catholic Church on Tuesday.
“Please,” he implored the tens of thousands, both poor and powerful, gathered outside St. Peter’s Basilica. “Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”
It was a message Pope Francis has hinted at, but now he made it clear, as he urged the economic, political and religious leaders arrayed before him not to allow “omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world.”
On a day of warm, blue skies, the 76-year-old pope thrilled the crowd as he arrived in the sun-drenched piazza in an open-air jeep, shouting “Ciao!” to well-wishers and kissing babies handed up to him.
At one point, as he neared a group of people in wheelchairs, he signaled for the jeep to stop, hopped off and approached a disabled man held up to the barricade by his family, blessing him and then kissing him on his forehead.
It was a gesture from a man whose short papacy so far has been defined by such spontaneous forays into the crowd, which seem to surprise and concern his security guards.
“I like him because he loves the poor,” said 7-year-old Pietro Loretti, who came from his home in Barletta in southern Italy to attend the Mass. Another child, 9-year-old Benedetta Vergetti from Cervetri near Rome, also skipped school to attend. “I like him because he’s sweet like my dad,” she said.
The Argentine native is the first pope from Latin America and the first named for the 13th-century friar St. Francis of Assisi, whose life’s work was to care for nature, the poor and the most disadvantaged.
In Buenos Aires, thousands of people packed the central Plaza de Mayo square to watch the ceremony on giant TV screens, erupting in joy when Francis called them from Rome, his words broadcast over loudspeakers.
Back in Rome, Francis was interrupted by applause as he declared his role as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics was to open his arms to “the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”
“Today, amid so much darkness we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others,” he said. “To protect creation, to protect every man and every woman, to look upon them with tenderness and love, is to open up a horizon of hope. It is to let a shaft of light break through the heavy clouds.”
After the celebrations die down, Francis has his work cut out as he confronts a church in crisis.
Retired Pope Benedict XVI spent his eight-year papacy trying to reverse the decline of Christianity in Europe, without much success. While growing in Africa and Asia, the Catholic Church has been stained in Europe, Australia and the Americas by sex abuse scandals.
Closer to home, Francis is facing serious management shortcomings in a Vatican bureaucracy in dire need of reform.
Francis hasn’t indicated how he might tackle those greater problems, focusing instead on messages and gestures that signal a total shift in priority and personality from his German theologian predecessor.
On Wednesday, Francis may reveal some of his ecumenical intentions, as he holds an audience with Christian delegations who attended his installation. On Friday, he will put his foreign policy chops on display in an address to the ambassadors accredited to the Holy See.
He plans to call on Benedict at Castel Gandolfo, the papal retreat south of Rome, on Saturday, and the next day to celebrate Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
Next week, Francis presides over all the rites of Holy Week, capped by Easter Sunday Mass on March 31, when Christians mark the resurrection of Christ, an evocative start to a pontificate.
Tuesday was the feast of St. Joseph, and Francis made special mention in his homily of the carpenter saint’s “lowly, concrete and faithful service.”
He later telephoned Benedict, the former Joseph Ratzinger, to wish him a happy name day, and the Vatican said in a statement that the pope emeritus has been following the celebrations with “intense interest” and “assures his successor his continued closeness in prayer.”
At the start of the Mass, Francis received the gold-plated fisherman’s ring, which recalls how St. Peter fished for food and later for souls, and a wool stole symbolizing his role as shepherd of his flock. The ring was something of a hand-me-down, first offered to Pope Paul VI, who presided over the latter half of the Second Vatican Council, the meetings that brought the church into the modern world.
Francis also received vows of obedience from a half-dozen cardinals – a potent symbol given that Benedict is still alive and was reportedly watching the proceedings on TV.
A cardinal intoned the rite of inauguration, saying: “The Good Shepherd charged Peter to feed his lambs and his sheep; today you succeed him as the bishop of this church.”
Flags from around the world, including Argentina’s blue and white flag, fluttered above the crowd, which the Vatican said numbered 150,000-200,000 people. Civil protection crews closed the main streets leading to the square to traffic and set up barricades for nearly a mile along the route to try to control the masses and allow official delegations through.
Some 132 official delegations attended, including more than a half-dozen heads of state from Latin America, a sign of the significance of the election for the region. Francis’s determination that his pontificate would be focused on the poor has resonance in a poverty-stricken region that counts 40 percent of the world’s Catholics.
In the VIP section was U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, Taiwanese President Ying-Jeou Ma, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, Prince Albert of Monaco and Bahrain Prince Sheik Abdullah bin Haman bin Isa Alkhalifa, among others. All told, six sovereign rulers, 31 heads of state, three princes and 11 heads of government attended, the Vatican said.
Francis directed his homily to them, saying: “We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness.”
After the Mass, Francis stood in a receiving line for nearly two hours to greet each of the government delegations in St. Peter’s Basilica, chatting warmly and animatedly with each one, kissing the few youngsters who came along with their parents and occasionally blessing a rosary given to him.
Unlike his predecessors, he did so in just his white cassock, not the red cape.
Among the religious VIPs attending was the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I, who became the first patriarch from the Istanbul-based church to attend a papal investiture since the two branches of Christianity split nearly 1,000 years ago. Also attending for the first time was the chief rabbi of Rome. Their presence underscores the broad hopes for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue in this new papacy, given Francis’ own work for improved relations.
In a gesture to Christians in the East, the pope prayed with Eastern rite Catholic patriarchs and archbishops before the tomb of St. Peter at the start of the Mass, and the Gospel was chanted in Greek rather than the traditional Latin.
But it is Francis’ history of living with the poor and working for them while archbishop of Buenos Aires that seems to resonate with ordinary Catholics who say they are hopeful that Francis can inspire a new generation of faithful who have fallen away from the church.
“As an Argentine, he was our cardinal. It’s a great joy for us,” said Edoardo Fernandez Mendia, an Argentine who was in the crowd. “I would have never imagined that it was going to be him.”
Recalling another great moment in Argentine history, when soccer great Diego Maradona scored an improbable goal in the 1986 World Cup, he said: “And for the second time, the Hand of God came to Argentina.”