Pope Francis at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican on Tuesday. (AFP)
Vatican City, March 19: At the formal start of his papacy, Pope Francis offered a passionate pledge today to serve “the poorest, the weakest, the least important”, striking the same tones of humility as have marked the days since he was elected last week.
On a raised and canopied throne on a purple platform looking out from St Peter’s Basilica to the huge piazza in front of it, the pope enjoined those in temporal power to protect the world and “not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world”.
“Today, too, amid so much darkness, we need to see the light of hope and to be men and women who bring hope to others,” he added to frequent applause from some among the tens of thousands people cramming the square and the broad avenue leading to it from the Tiber river. The Vatican estimated the number at 150,000 to 200,000.
Clearly defining his vision of his own role, he quoted from scriptural texts to say that as Bishop of Rome, he was endowed with “a certain power”. But he went on: “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 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, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.”
His words, referring to St Joseph, on whose day the inauguration fell, found an echo. “This is why we are all here, his warmth,” said Andreina Baldi, 58, a housewife from Rome, the end of Francis’ homily. “He just said that we should all open our arms to welcome God’s people, anybody, the poor, the youngest, those in jail. And he is already doing so. He wouldn’t stop kissing a baby in his tour on the pope mobile earlier, right here, in front of me,” she said.
Francis, 76, was elected last Wednesday as the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church to replace the far more formal and reserved Benedict XVI, 85, who became the first pope in 600 years to resign, citing poor health and failing strength.
For most of the people assembled in St Peter’s Square, the first glimpse of Francis today came when he arrived among the faithful gathered below the soaring facade of St Peter’s, standing in the rear of a white open-air vehicle rather than a covered version of the traditional popemobile protected by bulletproof glass.
He wore simple white robes, halted to kiss a baby in the crowd and walked among the faithful. At one point, he gave supporters a thumbs-up sign, drawing laughter. He also stopped to kiss a disabled man in the crowd and people in the square said he seemed informal and relaxed. Many cried “Viva il Papa” — “long live the pope”.
Security officers flanked his vehicle and a strong contingent of Italian police mingled with the crowd around Francis, an Argentine who is the son of Italian immigrants.
“In just a few days, he has conquered our hearts,” said Anna Di Renzo, an artist from the northern Italian village of Portacomaro, his family’s ancestral home.