Through a square bustling with tourists, locals, pilgrims and dignitaries, Pope Francis made his way atop an open-top vehicle on Tuesday en route to a Mass that will officially inaugurate him Bishop of Rome.
He wore the simple iron cross he wore as a cardinal and which he had on when he first appeared to the world as pope.
When the gathered faithful at St. Peter’s Square held up babies and young children for him to kiss, he obliged.
He also stepped out of his sports utility vehicle to kiss the head of a man with a physical disability.
Even though at least a dozen security officers in suits walked alongside the SUV as he circled the square, his decision to bypass the Popemobile, which his last two predecessors used, was telling.
The Mercedes Benz G-Class SUV afforded him the kind of direct contact with people he has embraced since becoming pope.
Had he been in the Popemobile, he would have been behind bulletproof glass, which was installed in 1981 after an assassination attempt on John Paul II.
The ceremony — the “Mass inaugurating the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome” — will be short in keeping with the spirit of simplicity embraced by the new Holy Father, the Vatican has said, lasting about two hours.
Francis has already made an impression as a pope of the people, who is concerned about the welfare of the poor. But he inherits a church wracked by a decades-old sexual abuse scandal and claims of corruption in the clergy.
‘Protect all creation’
Francis then took part in ceremonies within St. Peter’s Basilica, before emerging once more in solemn procession before the massed crowds in the square.
There he was presented first with a lamb’s wool shawl, known as the pallium, to represent his role as “the good shepherd,” then with the symbolic Fisherman’s Ring, to represent his role of spreading the gospel.
The ring is not solid gold like that of this predecessors but made of gold-plated silver — again reflecting his desire for simplicity.
The Mass, which marks the official start of Francis’ papacy, is now under way before the massed crowds.
The pope delivered his homily in Italian, rooted in a message of looking after the weakest in society and the environment.
He reflected first on the symbolism of the date: Tuesday is the day that Catholics celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph to honor Jesus’ father on Earth, the carpenter Joseph.
Francis spoke of Joseph’s role in protecting not only Jesus and Mary, but also the church.
“Joseph is a ‘protector’ because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping,” he said.
“He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions.”
Francis spoke also of the need to protect “all creation, the beauty of the created world” as instructed by the Bible and shown by St. Francis of Assisi, his namesake as pope.
This, he said, “means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.”
He warned of the consequences if people do not look after one another.
“Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened.”
And he urged those in power to live up to their duties, and to all to avoid evil, hatred and pride.
“I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”
Argentines watch Mass
Back in Francis’ home city, the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, the faithful packed the main square to watch the Mass on large screens set up throughout the Plaza de Mayo.
According to state-run newspaper Telam, a telephone call Francis had made from the Vatican was played to all present, saying: “Thanks for the prayers.”
He added, “Let us be aware of one another, care for life, nature, children and old people,” before concluding by asking those present to “pray for him.”
Groups also gathered in other cities throughout Argentina to watch the early morning Mass, Telam reported.
Dignitaries in St. Peter’s Square for the Mass include European Union leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of the pope’s native Argentina, and Zimbabwe’s controversial President Robert Mugabe.
Mugabe is subject to an EU travel ban but allowed to visit the continent for religious events and international conferences.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is leading the U.S. presidential delegation for the Mass, the White House said Friday, with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi also among the party.
On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said he would send a separate bipartisan congressional delegation.
A week of ceremonies
Those delegations are among scores from nations and international organizations traveling to the Vatican, led by heads of states and governments.
Delegations are also on hand from Italy and the pope’s native Argentina.
There are other groups from the Americas, including Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Canada, and European nations such as Holland, Belgium and Germany.
Representatives from across Christianity — Eastern and Western — will also be present, as will members of other religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism.
This is also one of the busiest times of the year on the Christian calendar, which will mean many public appearances in series for the new pontiff.
Less than a week away is Palm Sunday, the holiday that kicks off Holy Week, which culminates in Easter celebrations.
Hada Messia reported from Rome, Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London and Ben Brumfield wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Marilia Brocchetto, Dugald McConnell, Brian Todd, Claudia Rebaza and Jason Hanna also contributed to this report.
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