IMAGE: Pope Benedict XVI
L'Osservatore Romano via AP
Cardinal Jorge Arturo Medina Estevez, center foreground, and Bishop Piero Marini, center without skull cap, place the pallium on Pope Benedict XVI as cardinals look on Sunday during his inaugural Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.
updated 4/25/2005 5:43:50 AM ET 2005-04-25T09:43:50

Pope Benedict XVI formally began his papacy by extending a hand to Jews, other Christians and “non-believers,” and by signaling that he wants to be a good listener in the “enormous task” of leading the world’s 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

Addressing thousands of pilgrims crowded into sunny St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, the new pope made a point of leaving divisive political issues out of his first major homily and repeatedly expressed reverence for the late John Paul II, whom he served for 24 years as the enforcer of church doctrine.

“My real program of governance is not to do my own will, not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole church, to the word and the will of the Lord,” Benedict told a gallery of dignitaries, spiritual leaders and more than 350,000 pilgrims in German-accented Italian.

The pope did not elaborate, but the speech suggested his papacy could study some pressing issues such as greater social activism and ways to reverse the decline of church attendance in the West. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — before his election as pope — he clearly opposed any fundamental changes such as ending bans on contraception or female priests.

A ‘shared spiritual heritage’
In 2000, while serving at the Vatican’s powerful office that guides doctrine, the then-cardinal issued a document that angered other Christians and faiths by framing salvation in only Catholic terms — the kind of message underlying his reputation as a rigid, dogmatic Vatican insider.

Since being elevated to pope on Tuesday, Benedict has sought a more inclusive image.

“At first I thought he’d be stern and scolding,” said Walter Bonner, who traveled from Italy’s German-speaking Alpine region. “But he turns out to be more like a grandfather.”

On Sunday, the pope noted “a great shared spiritual heritage” with Jews, whom he called “brothers and sisters.”

Video: Pope reaches out Benedict’s effort to reach out to Jews carries an added dimension because of his membership in the Hitler Youth and later as a German army conscript during World War II. He said he was forced into participating.

Most Jewish leaders could not attend the Mass to formally invest Benedict with the papacy because it coincided with the weeklong Passover holiday.

“With his German background, I certainly believe that he will be sympathetic toward Jews and I think he will continue the path of John Paul II, who made some very significant symbolic gestures,” said Menachem Friedman, a sociology professor at Bar Ilan University in Israel. “But I think it is much too early to comment.”

‘Building bridges of friendship’
The pope made no direct overture to Muslims in the Mass, but he said that “like a wave gathering force, my thoughts go out to all men and women of today, to believers and non-believers alike.”

Benedict met with members of the Muslim community on Monday and assured them that the church wanted to continue “building bridges of friendship.”

The pontiff made the comments in a meeting with religious leaders who attended his installation ceremony, saying he was particularly grateful that members of the Muslim community were present.

“I express my appreciation for the growth of dialogue between Muslims and Christians, both at the local and international level,” he said.

He noted that the world is currently marked by conflicts but said it longs for peace.

“Yet peace is also a duty to which all peoples must be committed, especially those who profess to belong to religious traditions,” he said. “Our efforts to come together and foster dialogue are a valuable contribution to building peace on solid foundations.”

The Vatican didn’t say which Muslim leaders attended the private meeting.

“I assure you that the church wants to continue building bridges of friendship with the followers of all religions, in order to seek the true good of every person and of society as a whole,” he said.

Speaking of humankind as “sheep lost in the desert,” Benedict insisted during Sunday’s ceremony, “the church is alive. And the church is young.”

The 78-year-old pontiff appeared tired and coughed several times into a handkerchief that he pulled from within a sleeve of his golden vestments. He seemed to perk up, smiling and waving, when driven over the square’s cobblestones in an open-air vehicle after the nearly three-hour Mass.

Parents lifted children on their shoulders, others scrambled onto the square’s fountains for a glimpse, and pilgrims hoisted flags from every continent— including many from John Paul’s native Poland. From Bavaria, pilgrims in traditional lederhosen and felt hats greeted their countryman.

‘Do not be afraid’
In his homily, the 256th pope asked followers several times to pray for him. He proclaimed humility at assuming “this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity.”

He repeatedly invoked the aura of John Paul, who died on April 2 after a 26-year papacy during which he reached out strongly to other faiths and helped bring down communism with his support for Poland’s Solidarity movement.

IMAGE: Pope Benedict XVI
Claudio Onorati  /  Sipa Press
Pope Benedict XVI leads his first public Mass in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Sunday.
Some pilgrims carried portraits of the late pontiff. In one of the homily’s most forceful moments, Benedict echoed John Paul’s words from his 1978 installation Mass: “Do not be afraid.”

He also drew sustained cheers — one of more than a dozen ovations — when he described the late pope as being accompanied by the saints. Many Catholics have urged for swift sainthood for John Paul, but Benedict did not mention possible canonization.

“He loved our pope. So I think this papacy will be good and I hope it will be long,” said Grazyna Klimowicz, who led a group of Polish pilgrims on Sunday.

High hopes for Benedict in U.S.
One measure of the new pope will be whether he keeps up John Paul’s world-spanning travel. U.S. Cardinal Justin Rigali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, said he was confident the pontiff would rise to the challenge.

“We are very impressed by his extraordinary energy,” Rigali said on CNN’s Late Edition.

Rigali said American bishops are also looking to the pope to help them confront the fallout from priest sex abuse scandals in the U.S. church.

He said he was confident Benedict “will do everything possible to support the bishops of the United States in their efforts to extricate, to eradicate, to wipe out any of this abuse that has indeed taken place and that is deplorable.”

The Mass — known as the Ceremony of Investiture — brought Benedict back to the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica where he led the funeral rites for John Paul on April 8. Both events brought huge crowds and required sweeping security measures.

The list of dignitaries included German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Prince Albert II of Monaco and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the president’s brother.

Clutching a pastoral staff, Benedict began the ceremony by walking into the area under the basilica where St. Peter is believed to be buried, paying homage to the first pope and blessing the tomb with incense as a choir chanted.

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