Pope Francis charms throng with blessing in St. Peter's Square

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VATICAN CITY -- In his first address to the multitudes in St. Peter's Square since the night of his election, Pope Francis continued to delight listeners with his simplicity and a message of love and mercy that is also drawing Pittsburghers back to confession.

Speaking from a window high above the square, he reflected on the gospel story of a woman caught in adultery, who Jesus spared from stoning by asking her accusers, "Which of you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone."

"Well, brothers and sisters! God's face is that of a merciful father who is always patient," Pope Francis said. "He always has patience, is always patient with us, understanding us, awaiting us, never tiring of forgiving us if we know how to return to him with a contrite heart."

Preparations for Pope Francis' first Angelus address

Preparations for Pope Francis' first Angelus address as seen from the top of the colonnade in St. Peter's Square. (Video by Ann Rodgers; edited by Melissa Tkach; 3/17/2013)

The crowd, estimated at nearly 200,000, was silent for his 15-minute talk, then roared approval. The cheer many have adopted is his Italian name, "Fran-chess-co!" in the same cadence that American sports fans at international events chant "U-S-A!" The new pope's Angelus, or blessing, reportedly had a better turnout than Sunday's Rome Marathon, for which the route was adjusted to accommodate crowds seeking Pope Francis.

Earlier in the morning he presided at Mass in the small parish of St. Anne, inside the walls of the Vatican, where Vatican City residents worship. He wore unadorned vestments of Lenten purple, similar to those of the priests, and stood alongside them to distribute the communion. Afterward he greeted parishioners as any pastor would.

He had preached on the same text, this time without notes.

"I also think we are like this people who, on the one hand want to listen to Jesus, but, on the other hand, at times, like to be cruel to others, isn't that right? To condemn others, right?" the pope asked. "This is the Lord's strongest message: mercy. He himself said: 'I did not come for the righteous.' The righteous can justify themselves. ... Jesus came for the sinners."

Such messages, coupled with his demeanor, have inspired a boom in confession at Pittsburgh churches, said the Rev. Jerome Vereb, a Passionist who formerly worked at the Vatican and has been doing commentary on the new pope for WAOB-FM.

Father Vereb, who is undergoing long-term rehabilitation from a heart transplant while serving as a hospice chaplain, was astounded when people started showing up at his health care facility asking if he would hear their confession. Some hadn't made one in many years.

"It's the effect this pope has had," he said.

Wondering if it was only because he was on the radio, he contacted parish priests and local monasteries. News of Pope Francis' election had reached Pittsburgh hours before parishes were scheduled to begin 6 p.m. confessions as part of a diocesanwide Lenten program. Due to a snowstorm, he said, most priests didn't expect anyone to show up.

"They were jammed," he said. "They heard confessions until well after 9 p.m. They heard a lot of complicated confessions, and they were in the confessional much longer than expected."

One pastor reported hearing more than 50 confessions that night, he said. "The [Passionist] monastery was packed and so were the Capuchins." Priests said people reported being moved partly by the new pope's request for them to give him their blessing "but mostly it was the simplicity of the way that he stood there," he said.

In his Angelus, Pope Francis also mentioned that he was reading a book on mercy by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the former head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who turned 80 inside the conclave that elected Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio on Wednesday. He commended the book -- which is not available in English -- drawing raised eyebrows from those who had heard that Cardinal Kasper and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- who became Pope Benedict XVI -- had a reputation for clashing over how the church addressed itself to the wider world.

Those differences were overblown by news media, said Father Vereb, who added that Pope Francis, Pope Benedict and Pope John Paul II all shared with Cardinal Kasper a profound sense of the world's need for mercy, both from God and between human beings.

The Vatican is expecting even larger crowds for Pope Francis' inaugural Mass on Tuesday.

His two most closely watched meetings this week are an audience today for President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, with whom he has clashed over gay marriage and other social policies, and a Saturday visit to Benedict XVI, emeritus pontiff, at the papal summer residence Castel Gandolfo.

He has "provisionally" returned all the top officials at the Vatican to their former positions, from which they were required to step down after Pope Benedict's abdication Feb. 28. Ordinarily returning them to office is pro forma, but there have been many complaints by bishops and cardinals about incompetence and malfeasance in the Vatican bureaucracy. There was a strong call for a new pope to clean house. The Vatican statement implied that change could be expected.

"The Holy Father wishes to reserve time for reflection, prayer and dialogue before any final appointment or confirmation," the press office said.

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416.


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