Pope Francis was formally installed as bishop of Rome today in a ceremony characterized by more simplicity than the usual rituals and pomp enjoyed by papal predecessors taking up their pastoral duties.
In yet another sign that Francis sees his mission as pontiff as one of humble service, he used his arrival at St. John in Lateran Basilica to honor a past pope who remains wildly popular in Rome. Francis arrived a half-hour early to bless a plaque renaming a corner of the piazza outside the church after Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005.
Francis applauded, then gave his blessing after Rome's mayor unveiled the simple white stone plaque marking "Giovanni Paul II Square" in a section of the vast piazza, which often hosts free rock concerts and political and union rallies.
The Pope, who has stressed the importance of simplicity, arrived for the unveiling wearing a plain white cassock, a more modest wardrobe choice than that of the Italian cardinal who welcomed him wearing a red cape.
The early evening installation ceremony was a significant one for the church, since a pope is pontiff because he is the bishop of Rome, and not vice versa. Right after his election on March 13 as the church's first pope from Latin America, Francis made clear he would relish his pastoral role as the city's bishop.
Francis's insistence on his bishop's role "speaks to his sensibility in truly being the pastor of a church through concrete ways," Cardinal Agostino Vallini told Vatican Radio ahead of the installation ceremony. Vallini, who is the pope's vicar to the Rome diocese, is the prelate who greeted Francis and who, along with city hall, decided a part of St. John in Lateran Square should be named after John Paul II.
Pope kisses babies, draws crowds
The basilica is the city's most ancient, with foundations dating back to the early fourth century. The installation ceremony held there is steeped in centuries of ritual that modern popes have updated to the times.
But while many ornately dressed pontiffs in centuries past arrived in a fancy horse-drawn carriage, Francis rolled into a side entrance of the basilica complex in an open-topped white jeep. Before going indoors, the vehicle stopped again and again so his security team, walking briskly alongside, could pass babies to him so he could kiss them, to the delight of thousands of people gathered in the area. When wind started whipping up, Francis took off his skull cap, letting the breeze tussle his hair.
Francis later donned the tall, peaked bishop's hat, and wearing simply adorned cream-coloured vestments, gently sat back in the mosaic-studded basilica chair, known as the "Cathedra Romana," that symbolizes the post of Rome bishop.
He was handed the pastoral staff, symbolizing a bishop's care for his flock. Barely a few minutes later, Francis was up on his feet, shaking hands with priests, nuns and then with the parents and children in a Rome family, chatting amiably with them.
"It is with joy that I am celebrating the Eucharist for the first time in this Lateran Basilica, the Cathedral of the Bishop of Rome. I greet all of you with great affection," Francis said in his homily.
Francis urged people to cultivate patience and love, saying that "those who love are able to understand, to hope, to inspire confidence; they do not give up, they do not burn bridges, they are able to forgive."
In applauding the plaque honoring John Paul, Francis also paid tribute to a pontiff who enthusiastically embraced his role as bishop of Rome. The late pontiff would visit Rome parishes, hundreds of them, and often in poor neighborhoods on the city's outskirts, on Sunday mornings.
Vallini said Francis would make his first parish visit in May and then go to others in the city after Romans return from summer vacation.
While Francis instantly proved to be a crowd pleaser — about 100,000 people turned out in St. Peter's Square on Sunday and a nearby street for his noon blessing — the mention of the widely beloved John Paul still prompts affectionate cheers.
When Francis noted that John Paul "closed his eyes to this world" exactly eight years ago this month, the new pope drew so much applause that he couldn't finish his sentence.
Francis might be the pope who decides whether another miracle has been attributed to John Paul's intercession, which would enable the late, Polish-born pontiff to enjoy the church's highest honor, sainthood.
The church process to certify a first miracle needed for John Paul's beatification went exceptionally fast. The six years it took from his death until Pope Benedict XVI beatified him in 2011 was the shortest time in modern history. Beatification is the last formal step before sainthood.
Youth pep rallies planned
Francis seemed to be adding a new twist to the role of public squares in everyday life. At his Vatican appearance Sunday, he encouraged faithful to "go into the piazzas and announce Christ our saviour" to the people.
"Bring the Good News with sweetness and respect," he added. The "Good News" refers to the Gospels.
John Paul, then Benedict, and now Francis have all made shoring up flagging faith on the traditionally Christian European continent as well as in other affluent areas of the world a priority of their leadership.
The Vatican is also keen on preserving Catholic loyalty in places such as South America, where dynamic evangelical sects have been attracting baptized Catholics away from their faith, as well as encourage growing communities of Catholics in Africa and Asia.
The new Pope is expected to lead Catholic youth in pep rallies this summer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during a pilgrimage that would take the world's first pope to be born in South America back to his home continent.
When Francis spoke of the installation ceremony Sunday evening, he urged the crowd to pray with him so that together, "bishop and people, walk in faith and charity."