VATICAN CITY — “Let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world!”
With this emphasis on caring for and protecting one another and creation, Pope Francis officially began his Petrine ministry this morning in the presence of up to 200,000 pilgrims who had gathered for Mass in a chilly, blustery-but-sunny St. Peter’s Square.
He began his homily by expressing the faithful’s closeness to Benedict XVI, “with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude,” and noting that today is the Solemnity of St. Joseph — “a significant coincidence,” given Benedict’s baptismal name is Joseph.
The mission God entrusted to St. Joseph, Pope Francis said, was to be “custos, the protector” of Mary, Jesus and the Church. He exercised that role, Francis said, “discreetly, humbly and silently” and always “with loving care.” And he did so, he added, “by being constantly attentive to God, open to the signs of God’s presence and receptive to God’s plans, and not simply to his own.”
Joseph is a “protector,” he went on to explain, because he is “able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will”; and for this reason, “he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping.”
“He can look at things realistically; he is in touch with his surroundings; he can make truly wise decisions,” Pope Francis said, adding that we see in Joseph “the core of the Christian vocation,” which is to “protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation.”
But he stressed that this vocation is not limited to Christians: It is simply a “human dimension,” involving everyone. “It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live,” he said. “It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about.”
This protection means “building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect and goodness,” he continued, and he implored the faithful to be “protectors of God’s gifts!”
He told the crowd — who included world leaders such as Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and 31 heads of government — that whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility “the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened.” Tragically, he said, “in every period of history there are ‘Herods’ who plot death, wreak havoc and mar the countenance of men and women.”
The Holy Father also called on each person to keep watch over his or her emotions and heart and to “not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!” Indeed, he stressed, caring and protecting “demands goodness” and “calls for a certain tenderness.”
St. Joseph, he noted, is a “strong and courageous man, a working man; yet, in his heart, we see great tenderness” — a sign of strength of spirit and “a capacity for concern, for compassion, for genuine openness to others, for love.”
The Power of Service
The Pope also explained how the power bestowed by Jesus on Peter and his successors is one of service.
“Authentic power is service,” he said, and, when exercising power, one must “enter ever more fully into that service, which has its radiant culmination on the cross.” It is a “lowly, concrete and faithful service,” he added, that must “protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important.”
Only those who serve with love are able to protect, the Pope said.
He also noted that, amid so much darkness today, there is a need “to be men and women who bring hope to others,” a hope that is “built on the rock which is God.”
The service of the Bishop of Rome, and that of each person, he concluded, is “to protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves.”
Emphasized the Pope: “Let us protect with love all that God has given us!”
Pope Francis closed by imploring the intercession of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, Sts. Peter and Paul and St. Francis, so that the Holy Spirit will accompany him in his ministry. And, as he has frequently done since his election, he made a point of asking all the faithful to pray for him.
Making His Entrance
The inauguration began with Pope Francis taking his first ride in the popemobile, during which he was greeted with loud cheers as he slipped into St. Peter’s Square shortly before 9am. As he passed onlookers, he kissed babies and even descended from the open-top jeep to bless a man with a physical disability.
He then entered St. Peter’s Basilica, while trumpets announced the “Tu es Petrus,” and venerated the tomb of St. Peter, together with the patriarchs and major archbishops of the Eastern-rite Catholic Churches. The Pope was then presented with the papal pallium, ring and Book of the Gospels that were placed at St. Peter’s tomb the night before, before processing back into the square.
There, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the protodeacon, placed the pallium on the Pope’s shoulders, a prayer was recited by Cardinal Godfried Daneels, protopresbyter, and Cardinal Angelo Sodano, dean of the College of Cardinals, presented the Pope’s “Fisherman’s Ring.” Six cardinals each then made a symbolic act of obedience on behalf of all the other cardinals.
Latino Catholics in attendance were particularly excited about the inauguration ceremony.
“Today, everyone feels Argentinian, or at least us Latin Americans do,” Peruvian priest Father Jose Tola told Catholic News Agency.
Speaking to the Register after the Mass, American Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, archbishop emeritus of Baltimore and grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, said he thought the Mass “was very dignified, appropriate in every way,” and he “greatly valued the Pope’s words.”
“Everything he says is almost a commentary on St. John,” he said.
Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Rome-based Dignitatis Humanae Institute, drew attention to the Pope’s description of St. Joseph being “constantly attentive” to God. “I think this ‘attentiveness’ will be the watchword of his pontificate — and the injunction not to be afraid of tenderness,” Harnwell said.
Recalling the many invitations to pray for a Pope whom the faithful need rather than deserve, Harnwell said that, even though this new papacy is less than a week old, “for me at least, I think it is clear that God heard, and answered, our request.”
“It was an awe-inspiring event today,” said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., the leader of the U.S. congressional delegation to the inauguration. “It was powerful. You could feel the electricity in the square and in front of St. Peter’s.”
Smith, who is the chairman of the House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights and International Organizations, was struck by the Holy Father’s focus on helping those in need.
“He talked about Matthew Chapter 25, about caring for the least of us,” he said. “He was speaking about identifying with the poor.”
Summed up Smith, “It was a holy moment.”
Call to Benedict
This evening, Pope Francis telephoned Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI to wish him a happy name day and to again express his gratitude to him for his service to the Church.
“The conversation was wide-ranging and cordial,” the Vatican said. “The pope emeritus has followed the events of these days with intense interest, and in particular the celebration this morning, and assures his successor his continued closeness in prayer.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.