Installation Mass Launches Pope Francis' Papacy

At a mass in St. Peter's Square, the pope appealed to political leaders of the world to protect the environment, the poor and the marginalized. Representatives of the world's major religions were present, as well as some 132 delegations from all over the world.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

INSKEEP: That's the sound of bells in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, as Pope Francis celebrated his inaugural Mass today. The ceremony was infused with meaning, both in the substance of what the new pope said and the symbolism of how he was presented.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us on the line from Rome.

Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi, there, Steve.

INSKEEP: So the pope gives a homily, which I guess is being taken somewhat like an inaugural address. What did he say?

POGGIOLI: Well, he zeroed in on the concepts of tenderness, hope and protection. He spoke about St. Joseph - who is celebrated today, on March 19th - as the protector of Jesus and Mary, and also the Catholic Church. And Francis, speaking in Italian, made a very strong appeal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

POPE FRANCIS: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: He urged all people with economic, political and social authority to follow the example of St. Joseph and protect the environment, the weakest and the poorest. And he assured that a little bit of tenderness can open a horizon of hope. And in a nod to widespread criticism of the Vatican administration - which has been mired in scandals and mismanagement - Francis stressed that church leaders must be servants of the faithful, not their masters. That could be a sign of a very new climate here at the heart of the Catholic Church.

INSKEEP: When you mention the pope talking about the environment, it's a reminder that the church has positions on a huge menu of issues. And they can send such signals, not by changing positions, but by choosing the issues they want to address. And I suppose the symbolism of how they speak and how they show themselves can also have a lot of power.

POGGIOLI: Absolutely. The Mass itself was really a break with recent Masses. The themes were simplicity and ecumenism. We saw simplicity in a shorter ceremony than Francis' predecessors, Benedict, eight years ago, in the unadorned vestments he used, and in Francis' choice of a gold-plated silver fisherman's ring, rather than the usual solid gold.

And we saw ecumenism at the Tomb of St. Peter, inside the basilica, where Francis prayed with representatives of Eastern Rite churches. And there were many delegations at the Mass of other major religions, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhs and Jains communities. And there were readings not just in English, French and Spanish, but also in Russian, Chinese, Swahili and Arabic. The message was very much of inclusiveness.

INSKEEP: How did some of the people included in that crowd respond to the pope?

POGGIOLI: Well, I've been very struck by the enthusiasm of some skeptical Catholics and some of the harshest critics of the previous two papacies they say has steered the church in a conservative direction.

Jane Oravec is an Australian who lives in Connecticut. She's happy the pope is a Jesuit, because she says Jesuits question traditional ways of thinking.

JANE ORAVEC: Whether he'll allow everyone to question too much, I'm not sure, but at least he'll be open to the thought process.

POGGIOLI: And another person I talked to, Paul Collins, he's a writer and a historian of the papacy. He's closely listening to the new pope, and he says there's an electric atmosphere in Catholicism. Although he's certain Francis will not immediately say yes to contraceptives, make priestly celibacy optional or ordain women priests...

PAUL COLLINS: But what he is going to do is change the emphasis within Catholicism, shift the emphasis away from a focus on power, influence, politics, money, to the people, the poor, the marginalized and the fact that the church essentially exists to proclaim the message of Jesus, who was a man who had nowhere to lay his head, as the Gospels describe it.

POGGIOLI: And, you know, there's another aspect of this first pope from the global south that is endearing him, even to the secular world, particularly here in Southern Europe, which is being buffeted by the eurozone crisis. In past interviews, Jorge Mario Bergoglio - as he was called before becoming pope - sharply criticized globalism's effects on workers and what he called economic and financial terrorism, and, quote, "the tyranny of the market," unquote.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, thank you very much, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. She is in Rome, where Pope Francis has celebrated his inaugural Mass today, a ceremony filled with both symbolism and substance.

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