Pope Francis urges protection of nature, the weak, in inaugural Mass

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VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis formally launched his ministry today by urging Catholics to love and serve the poor and weak, and he practiced what he preached by getting out of his white Jeep to bless a severely handicapped man.

"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," he told about 200,000 people who overflowed St. Peter's Square for his outdoor inaugural Mass. The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina has been pope since his March 13 election, following the Feb. 28 abdication of Pope Benedict XVI. But at this Mass he was given the formal symbols of his office.

His normally quiet, gentle voice became strong and emphatic as he continued, "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, and those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked the sick and those in prison."

Before the Mass he had toured the square standing on the back of an open white Jeep, rather than in the more enclosed Popemobile. As he passed an area reserved for people in wheelchairs he asked the driver to stop, climbed down and blessed a man whose body appeared rigid and contorted. He greeted others as well. The crowd, which had been wildly enthusiastic before, escalated into ecstasy.

Of all the prelates who who took part in the Mass, the new pope was the most simply vested. He wore a cream-colored chasuble with a stripe up the center and around the border. The cardinals were vested in brilliant gold and Eastern patriarchs wore ornate crowns. He had asked for the Mass to be simplified and significantly shortened. It ended at just under the predicted two hours.

"Ever since he got elected I've been fired up to be a priest," said Michael Conway, a Pittsburgh seminarian who is studying in Rome. "Not that I wasn't already, but I really want to get out there now. He's all about the church as servant, serving the poor and marginalized, serving one another and serving God. I think he's going to put us to work."

Francis is the first pope from Latin American and the first named for St. Francis of Assisi, the 13th century evangelist who gave up wealth to live in poverty and who is remembered for his great love of nature. In a fitting note, he promised that a little bit of tenderness can "open up a horizon of hope."

Francis was interrupted by applause several times during his homily, including when he spoke of the need to protect the environment, serve one another with love and tenderness and not allow "omens of destruction," hatred, envy and pride to "defile our lives."

"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," he said.

The blue and white flags from Argentina fluttered above the crowd, which Italian media initially estimated could reach 1 million. The Vatican said the actual size was between 150,000-200,000. 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.

Before the Mass began, Francis received the fisherman's ring symbolizing the papacy and a wool stole symbolizing his role as shepherd of his 1.2-billion strong flock. He also received vows of obedience from a half-dozen cardinals -- a potent symbol given his predecessor Benedict XVI is still alive.

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."

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 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.

In the VIP section was German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, the 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.

Francis directed his homily to them, saying: "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."

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Ann Rodgers: arodgers@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1416. The Associated Press contributed. First Published March 19, 2013 8:45 AM


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