VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI began his pontificate yesterday with a centuries-old investiture ceremony in which he urged Christians, Jews and nonbelievers to rediscover spirituality and escape the “deserts” of poverty, hunger and loneliness.
The 78-year-old pontiff, who was elected by his fellow cardinals on Tuesday, was inaugurated formally in a glittering Mass in St. Peter’s Square attended by about 350,000 people.
An additional 50,000 pilgrims and residents thronged nearby squares on the banks of the Tiber River for the two-hour 40-minute service, which drew dozens of heads of government and representatives including, President Bush’s brother Jeb, the governor of Florida who was raised an Episcopalian and is a convert to Catholicism.
At its end, Benedict delighted the crowd by touring St. Peter’s Square in an open-topped white jeep driven as Bach’s music was played to pilgrims reaching out to the pontiff or straining for a better view.
Security was extraordinarily tight, but the jeep was not fitted with the bulletproof glass that was installed on a similar open-top vehicle after Pope John Paul II was shot and wounded while circling the square in 1981.
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was known as the enforcer of church orthodoxy, pledged in his lengthy homily to listen to the will of God in governing the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
“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, to be guided by Him, so that He himself will lead the Church at this hour of our history,” he said in Italian.
Benedict began his solemn installation by praying at the tomb of the apostle Peter, regarded by Catholics as the first pope, in the Vatican grotto under St. Peter’s Basilica. Wearing gold vestments and clutching his pastoral staff, Benedict blessed the tomb with incense as a choir chanted. He was given the fisherman’s ring and a stole of white lamb and sheep’s wool, symbols of his papal authority.
The stole, called a pallium, symbolizes the pope’s role as a shepherd taking care of his flock. It is pierced with three golden pins to symbolize the nails driven into the cross on which Christ was crucified, and embroidered with five red silk crosses symbolizing the wounds of Christ during His execution.
In his first homily as the 265th leader of the Roman Catholic Church, the pope said he was “a weak servant of God” and asked for prayers to help him in the “enormous task that truly exceeds human capacity.” He reiterated his promise to continue the policies of Polish-born John Paul, who died April 2, by reaching out to Jews and other faiths.
Pausing periodically to acknowledge the fervent applause that rose from the congregation, Benedict interrupted his homily several times to cough and at times looked weary. At 78, he is the oldest man to be elected pope in three centuries.
But he spoke with a strong voice as he told Catholics that the church was still very much alive, young and able to grow and prevent the world from remaining a spiritual wasteland.
“There are so many kinds of desert,” he said, taking up the main theme of his powerful homily. “There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love.
“There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.”
Benedict quoted John Paul’s inaugural homily of 1978 in which he said, “Do not be afraid.” The new pope said he wanted to reach out to other Christians, delivering “special greetings” to them as well as to Jews, “to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage.”
“Like a wave gathering force, my thoughts go out to all men and women of today, to believers and nonbelievers alike,” he said.
Yesterday evening, Benedict was driven to visit his brother, Georg, 81, at the pope’s former apartment just outside the walls of the Holy See.