VATICAN CITY (CBSNewYork/AP) – Pope Francis urged princes, presidents, sheiks and thousands of ordinary people gathered for his installation Mass on Tuesday to protect the environment, the weakest and the poorest, mapping out a clear focus of his priorities as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
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 most disadvantaged. Echoing the gentleness for which St. Francis is known, the pope said a little bit of tenderness can “open up a horizon of hope.”
The Vatican said 150,000-200,000 people attended the Mass, held under bright blue skies following days of chilly rain and featuring flag-waving fans from around the world.
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 not allow “omens of destruction,” hatred, envy and pride to “defile our lives.”
New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who is still in Rome and attended Tuesday’s Mass, said Francis “seems to have given a booster shot to just an energy and a dynamism in the church.”
“His simplicity. His sincerity. His outreach. His embrace. His very simple, childlike way of preaching the Gospel. It’s stunning, his simplicity,” Dolan told WCBS 880′s Rich Lamb. “There is a whole new spirit and there just seems to be a breath of fresh air, not only throughout the Vatican and Rome, but I’m sensing throughout the church universal.”
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Francis said the role of the pope is to open his arms and protect all of humanity, but “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.”
“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.
Francis, 76, thrilled the crowd at the start of the Mass by taking a long round-about through the sun-drenched piazza and getting out of his jeep to bless a disabled man. It was a gesture from a man whose short papacy so far is becoming defined by such spontaneous forays into the crowd and concern for the disadvantaged.
The blue and white flags from Argentina fluttered above the crowd, which Italian media initially estimated could reach 1 million. 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 woolen stole symbolizing his role as shepherd of his flock. He also received vows of obedience from a half-dozen cardinals – a potent symbol given his predecessor Benedict XVI is still alive and was reportedly watching the proceedings on TV from the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo.
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, Joe Biden, the first Catholic vice president in U.S. history, 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. All told, six sovereign rulers, 31 heads of state, three princes and 11 heads of government were attending, the Vatican said.
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.”
Among the religious VIPs attending was the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I, who became the first patriarch from the Istanbul-based church to attend a papal investiture since the two branches of Christianity split nearly 1,000 years ago. Also attending for the first time was the chief rabbi of Rome. Their presence underscores the broad hopes for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue in this new papacy given Francis’ own work for improved relations and St. Francis of Assisi.
But it is Francis’ history of living with the poor and working for them while archbishop of Buenos Aires that seems to have resonated with ordinary Catholics who say they are hopeful that Francis can inspire a new generation of faithful who have fallen away from the church.
“He said we can’t be afraid of being tender. We can’t be afraid of loving, especially those who are poor and who are fragile and who are left behind,” Dolan said. “In a world of violence and manipulation and stepping on people and bullying and shootings, just to hear somebody talk about tenderness, somebody talk about love, if that’s not what we need, I don’t know what is.”
Cardinal Dolan told CBS 2′s Tony Aiello he listened to the pope’s simple words, and reflected on his flock in New York.
“I’m thinking of the woman who gets up early, beats her brains out for 12 hours to keep her kids fed, and when she hears this pope talk about beautiful things, like tenderness and love and mercy … I think that’s gonna resonate throughout the world, and that’s teaching me to do the same, to be like that,” Dolan said.
For nearly a half-hour before the Mass began, Francis toured the square in an open-air jeep, waving, shouting “Ciao!” to well-wishers and occasionally kissing babies handed up to him as if he had been doing this for years. At one point, as he neared a group of people in wheelchairs, he signaled for the jeep to stop, hopped off and went to bless a disabled man held up to the barricade by an aide.
In an indication of his devotion to the Virgin Mary, which is common among Latin American Catholics, Francis prayed by a statue of the Madonna at the end of the service.
After the Mass, Francis stood in a receiving line to greet each of the government delegations in St. Peter’s Basilica, chatting warmly with each one, kissing the few youngsters who came along with their parents and occasionally blessing a rosary given to him. Unlike his predecessors, he did so in just his white cassock, not the red cape.
On Wednesday, he holds an audience with the visiting Christian delegations. He has a break from activity on Thursday.
Dolan said he would love Pope Francis to come and rededicate St. Patrick’s Cathedral someday. He said Francis is scheduled to visit the U.S. sometime in 2015.
“You bet I’ll invite him,” Dolan said. “We’d be honored to have him in New York.”
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