Pope Francis inaugurated his papacy with a Mass in front of hundreds of thousands of people and foreign leaders in St. Peter’s Square on Tuesday with a simplified rite that fuelled hopes for change in the scandal-plagued Roman Catholic Church.
Francis, the first Jesuit pope, has already put his mark on the papacy, abandoning much of the baroque pomp of his predecessor Benedict and signaling that he wants a Church whose first priority is the poor and disadvantaged.
He toured a crammed St. Peter’s Square under bright sunshine before the mass in an open white jeep, abandoning the bullet-proof popemobile used frequently by Benedict.
He stopped frequently to greet some of the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the sprawling square, kissing babies and getting out at one point to bless a disabled person.
He wore plain white vestments and black shoes, in contrast to the luxurious red loafers that attracted attention under Benedict.
The ceremony conducted from an altar on the steps of the huge basilica was also been shortened to two hours after a three-hour service in 2005 when Benedict began his papacy.
Before the Mass, Francis collected his newly minted gold ring and pallium, a liturgical woollen band worn around the neck, that had been placed overnight on the tomb of St. Peter under the basilica’s altar.
He processed out of the church in a column of cardinals chanting a litany calling for support for the new pontiff from saints, including several previous popes.
The Mass formally installs Francis as the new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
Many in the crowd said they had high hopes of a more humble papacy under Francis, who as a Jesuit has taken a vow of poverty.
“He is a simple, humble person, he is not like the untouchable popes, he seems like someone normal people can reach out to,” said Argentine electrician Cirigliano Valetin, 51, who works in southern Italy.
“My first impression is that the pope is very humble, and has taken the church in his heart,” said Isaac Adroamabe from Arua in Uganda, who is studying to be a priest in Rome.
“I think he is going to fulfill his promises, he will lead the Church based on the example of St. Francis, you can already see he is a down-to-earth pope who mingles with the people,” he said.
Six sovereigns, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, other leaders as well as heads of many other faiths were among the 130 delegations on the steps of the famous basilica.
Among them was Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew from Istanbul, the first time the spiritual head of Orthodox Christians has attended a Roman pope’s inaugural Mass since the Great Schism between western and eastern Christianity in 1054.
The former Buenos Aires Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio has aroused enormous enthusiasm and interest in the Catholic world due to the modest way he has assumed a post that was modeled after a Renaissance monarchy and carries titles such as “Vicar of Jesus Christ” and “Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church”.
In the six days since his election, he has referred to himself only as Bishop of Rome, the position from which his authority flows, and hinted he plans to reduce Vatican centralism and govern in consultation with other bishops.
Francis will receive the visiting political leaders in the basilica after the Mass.
On Wednesday, Francis will receive more than 30 delegations representing other Christian churches, as well as from the Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh and Jain religions, a Vatican spokesman said.
He will address foreign ambassadors to the Vatican on Friday and have lunch with Benedict, their first meeting since the conclave, on Saturday before leading celebrations the next day for Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week leading to Easter.
Francis had his first taste of the diplomatic challenges of the papacy when on Monday, Argentinian President Cristina Fernandez asked him to support Buenos Aires in a dispute with Britain over the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic.
A Vatican spokesman had no comment on the request.
He will also find himself greeting an international pariah, Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, who has been under a European Union travel ban since 2002 because of allegations of vote rigging and human rights abuses.
The Vatican is not part of the European Union, allowing Mugabe to travel there.
The Vatican on Monday revealed the new pope’s coat of arms, similar to the one he used as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, with symbols representing Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
Symbols of the papacy have been added behind it, including two keys which signify the Biblical passage in which Jesus told St. Peter he would give him “the keys of the kingdom” of heaven.
The motto on his coat of arms is “Miserando atque eligendo” (Having had mercy, he called him), which comes from a meditation by the Venerable Bede, an English monk in the 8th century, on a passage of the Gospel in which Jesus calls St. Matthew to be an apostle.
In various sermons and comments since his surprise election last Wednesday, the pope has urged people to be more merciful and not to be so quick to condemn the failings of others.
The papal ring chosen by Francis is made of gold-plated silver and depicts St. Peter holding the keys, the Vatican said.
Francis inherits a Church mired in scandals over priestly abuse of children and the leak of confidential documents alleging corruption and fierce rivalry between cardinals inside the Church government or Curia.
He has also been accused by some critics in Argentina of not doing enough to oppose human rights abuses under a military government during the 1976-1983 “dirty war” when some 30,000 leftists were kidnapped and killed.