VATICAN CITY -- Before crowned heads, government leaders and masses of the faithful, Pope Francis formally took office Tuesday as head of the Roman Catholic Church in a ceremony replete with pageantry and symbols from ancient Christendom.
In a homily, the church’s 266th pontiff exhorted his listeners and 1.2 billion followers to care for the environment and for other people, especially the poor and forgotten -- themes closely associated with the saint whose name he picked for his own as pope, Francis of Assisi.
“Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment,” said Francis, the first pontiff from the Americas. “Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world.”
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With majestic St. Peter’s Basilica looming behind him, the 76-year-old pontiff addressed tens of thousands of pilgrims massed in St. Peter’s Square, some of whom camped out overnight to make sure they could corner a good spot.
Dignitaries in the audience included U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner from the pope’s native Argentina and royalty from several countries. Reflecting the pope’s concern for ecumenism, leaders of other denominations and religions were present as well, including Bartholomew I, the first head of the Orthodox church to attend a papal installation since it split from the Roman church 1,000 years ago.
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Organizers expected hundreds of thousands of people to crowd into Vatican City and the surrounding streets for the ceremony, which took place under beautiful blue skies after days of rainy weather.
Though papal inaugurations traditionally take place on a Sunday, Tuesday is the feast day of St. Joseph, the patron saint of the church.
Francis urged the faithful -- and himself -- to follow Joseph’s example of service to others.
“Let us never forget that authentic power is service and that the pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the cross,” the bespectacled pontiff said, his voice ringing through loudspeakers set up in the square.
“He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked St. Joseph, and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important,” Francis said, to loud applause.
He preached in Italian, but prayers were read aloud in several languages, including French and Chinese. One of the Bible readings was delivered in English.
Elected by his fellow cardinals last Wednesday, Francis has already impressed Catholics and non-Catholics alike with his humble lifestyle and common touch, embodying a pastoral quality that many devotees said they wanted to see in a new pope. Before the installation Mass began, he rode around St. Peter’s Square in an open-top jeep to greet the crowds, and at one point stepped off to lay hands on a disabled man.
“He’s marvelous,” Michele di Martino, a 41-year-old construction worker, said after listening to Francis’ homily. “We are in a new era. It seems that the Holy Spirit is very close, even when everything is gloomy.”
Francis is the first Jesuit, a religious order that emphasizes simplicity and service, to become pope. In Buenos Aires, where he was known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, he declined to live in the spacious official archbishop’s residence but rather a small apartment close by.
The new pope inherits a church that is growing in places such as Asia and Africa but is seeing its numbers decline at home in Europe. A number of scandals have also tarnished the church’s image, including the allegations of clerical sex abuse and corruption and dysfunction within the Vatican.
An Argentine of Italian descent, Francis succeeds Benedict XVI, who last month became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign.
More than 100 cardinals, “princes” of the church, gathered inside the Sistine Chapel last week to pick a new pontiff and elected then-Cardinal Bergoglio with the required two-thirds majority vote after just 24 hours.
Tom Kington contributed to this report.
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