Pope Francis officially began his ministry today in an installation Mass simplified to suit his style, but still grand enough to draw hundreds of thousands of people to St. Peter’s Square to witness the start of his papacy.
Francis thrilled the crowd by touring the sun-drenched piazza and getting out of his jeep to bless a disabled man and kiss children.
It was a gesture from a man whose short papacy is becoming defined by such spontaneous forays into the crowd and concern for the disadvantaged.
The blue and white flags from Francis’ native Argentina fluttered above the crowd and civil protection crews closed the main streets leading to the square to traffic and set up barricades for nearly a mile (two kilometres) along the route to try to control the masses and allow official delegations through.
A wax cast of the ring Francis received was first presented to Pope Paul VI, who presided over the second half of the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 meetings that revolutionized the church.
Paul never wore it but the cast was subsequently made into the ring that Francis chose among several other more ornate ones.
Francis will receive each of the government delegations in St. Peter’s Basilica after the Mass, and then hold an audience with the visiting Christian delegations on Wednesday. He has a break from activity on Thursday; a gracious nod perhaps to the fact that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is being installed that day in London.
As a result, Welby won’t be representing the Anglican Communion at Tuesday’s installation Mass for Francis, sending instead a lower-level delegation. All told, six sovereign rulers, 31 heads of state, three princes and 11 heads of government are attending, the Vatican said.
For Jews, Orthodox and other religious leaders, the new pope’s choice of Francis as his name is also important for its reference to the Italian town of Assisi, where Pope John Paul II began conferences encouraging interfaith dialogue and closer bonds among Christians.
Francis had his first taste of the diplomatic challenges of the papacy when on Monday, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez asked him to support Buenos Aires in a dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.
A Vatican spokesman had no comment on the request.
He will receive the visiting political leaders in the basilica after the Mass.
He will also find himself greeting an international pariah, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who has been under a European Union travel ban since 2002 because of allegations of vote rigging and human rights abuses.
Francis, named after the 13th-century friar known for his care of the most disadvantaged, has made clear he wants his pontificate to be focused on the poor, a message that has resonance in a poverty-stricken region that counts 40 percent of the world’s Catholics.
Among the religious VIPs attending is 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.