VATICAN CITY (AP) — After a week marked by acts of simplicity and openness, Pope Francis finally let his words do the talking as he officially began his stewardship of the Catholic Church on Tuesday.
“Please,” he implored the tens of thousands, both poor and powerful, gathered outside St. Peter’s Basilica. “Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”
It was a message Pope Francis has hinted at, but now he made it clear, as he urged the economic, political and religious leaders arrayed before him not to allow “omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world.”
On a day of warm, blue skies, the 76-year-old pope thrilled the crowd as he arrived in the sun-drenched piazza in an open-air jeep, shouting “Ciao!” to well-wishers and kissing babies handed up to him.
At one point, as he neared a group of people in wheelchairs, he signaled for the jeep to stop, hopped off and approached a disabled man held up to the barricade by his family, blessing him and then kissing him on his forehead.
It was a gesture from a man whose short papacy so far has been defined by such spontaneous forays into the crowd, which seem to surprise and concern his security guards.
The Argentine native is the first pope from Latin America and the first named for the 13th-century friar St. Francis of Assisi, whose life’s work was to care for nature, the poor and the most disadvantaged.
Some 132 official delegations attended the Mass, including more than a half-dozen heads of state from Latin America, a sign of the significance of the election for the region.
In the VIP section was U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, Taiwanese President Ying-Jeou Ma and Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, among others. All told, six sovereign rulers, 31 heads of state, three princes and 11 heads of government attended, the Vatican said.
After the Mass, Francis stood in a receiving line for nearly two hours.