- - Tuesday, March 19, 2013

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis urged leaders from more than 130 countries to “open a horizon of hope” as he celebrated his first Mass on Tuesday as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. Thousands thronged St. Peter's Square to cheer the new pontiff.

Francis, the first pope from the Western Hemisphere, who had championed the poor as a cardinal in Argentina, promised to serve the “poorest and weakest,” and he underscored the common touch he has displayed since he was elected the 266th pope last week.

He rode to his installation in the “popemoblie” — but without its bulletproof shell — and stopped to bless well-wishers and kiss children.

Francis, 76, promised the faithful that as pope he will pay special attention to helping “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.”

He delivered a clear message to the world leaders present, who included six sovereign rulers, 31 heads of state, three princes and 11 heads of government. Vice President Joseph R. Biden represented the United States.

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe also attended Francis’ installation Mass, despite being under a European travel ban to protest his human rights record.

“Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment,” Francis said.

“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.”

Among the religious VIPs attending was the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew, 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.

After a week of dreary, drizzly weather, the sun did, indeed, shine brightly over his installation ceremony and warmed the faces of an estimated 200,000 people crowded into St. Peter's Square and nearby streets.

American tourist Mac Lackey, 41, sort of stumbled onto the ceremony, as he and his family arrived in Rome on vacation from their home in Charlotte, N.C., just as the pope was being inaugurated.

“What an amazing time to be here,” said Mr. Lackey, owner of a technology company. “I’ve been taking photos all morning and sending them back to the states, waking up all my friends. Now I feel more connected, and I will be eager to see how this pope does in the future.”

Oksana Poliarish, a 26-year-old Ukrainian student studying sacred music in Rome, said: “To be here brings out so many deep emotions. My soul is touched. I am about to cry.”

Argentines in the crowd were especially proud to celebrate a pope from their South American nation.

“We in Argentina know him well. He is a man of peace and mercy who wants to bring people together,” said Dr. Laura Vives, a 49-year-old physician from Buenos Aires.

In the Argentine capital, thousands of people packed the central Plaza di Mayo to watch the pope on giant television screens. They erupted in joy when Francis spoke directly to them from Rome.

“I want to ask a favor,” Francis told them. “I want to ask you to walk together, and take care of one another. … And don’t forget that this bishop who is far away loves you very much. Pray for me.”

Francis faces serious challenges in taking over a church in turmoil after the resignation last month of Benedict XVI, the first pontiff to abdicate in 600 years. The church is beset with sex abuse scandals in the United States and Europe and plagued with bureaucratic mismanagement in the Vatican.

Catholics in St. Peter's Square were confident Francis can handle the problems.

“So far this papacy is like a breath of fresh air that we all needed very badly,” said Antonio Nicolini, 51, a Roman theology and philosophy professor.

Francis will have a chance to reveal his plans for reforming the church Wednesday, when he holds an audience with Christian delegations that attended his installation. On Friday, he is scheduled to meet with foreign ambassadors accredited to the Vatican.

On Saturday, he plans to visit Benedict, who since his resignation has stayed out of the public limelight at the papal retreat, Castle Gandolfo, south of Rome.

Francis then will preside over the rites of Holy Week and celebrate Easter Sunday Mass on March 31.

Also Tuesday, Carlos Trovarelli, leader of Francis’s Franciscan order in Argentina and Uruguay, told an Italian newspaper that the pope, as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, took the first steps toward granting sainthood to several priests and Catholic activists killed in 1976 during the Argentine military dictatorship.

The Vatican later confirmed that Cardinal Bergoglio in 2011 approved the beatification of Carlos de Dios Murias, a Franciscan priest murdered by a military death squad. He also approved a sainthood investigation for five Pallotine churchmen killed at St. Patrick’s Church in Buenos Aires.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.