An Opulent Installation for a Man of the Poor

ROME – An estimated 150,000 people from around the world gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Tuesday morning for the inaugurating mass of Pope Francis. The pope’s first mass emphasized humility and service for the poor, values that have already become characteristic of Francis in the six days since his election.

“Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service,” the pope said standing under a crimson and gold canopy atop the stairs of St. Peter’s Basilica. “He must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important.”

Worshipers in St. Peter's Square for Pope Francis' Inauguration Mass (Marie Telling / Religio

Worshipers in St. Peter’s Square gather for Pope Francis’ installment mass. Marie Telling / Religio.

The installment mass was held on the Catholic saints day dedicated to St. Joseph, the husband of the mother of Jesus. Pope Francis used the occasion to speak about the role Joseph played in protecting Jesus and Mary and the broader implications of the concept of protection. “It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us,” he said. “In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!”

Dignitaries from more than a hundred countries, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, and representatives of different faiths attended the ceremony. “Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be ‘protectors’ of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment,” said the pope.

To many, Francis brings a new simplicity and humility to a church known for its ostentation. “In St. Peter’s Square you can really see Catholic pomp and opulence,” said Maximilian Ford, 21, an English student of theology who was present at the inauguration. But it is important to remember—as Francis seems to do—that God plays no favorites, he added. “He’s the God of the rich and the poor.”

José Enrique Amaya, 24, a Mexican seminarian who was also present at the ceremony, agreed. Like St. Francis of Assisi who famously said,  “Preach the gospel and, if necessary, use words,” Amaya expects Pope Francis to lead by example in the transformation of an opulent church.

“Poverty is a sensitive subject because of the economic crisis,” said Jorge Mora, another Seminarian from Mexico. “But one has to see it as an opportunity to discover spiritual wealth.”

Peter Paul Saldanha, 49, a Professor at Pontifico Collegio Urbano, made a similar point when comparing Francis to Pope Benedict XVI. “Ratzinger is a great thinker, theologian—he explains the mystery of god,” he said. “Bergoglio is more of a pastor, more of the beauty of the people—wisdom is found in ordinary people.”

Francis’ desire to be close to the people seemed evident to many of those present when he entered St. Peter’s square in an open-top car before the mass, smiling serenely and waving at the congregation. Francis was driven round the square for about 15 minutes and crowds rushed to the barricades nearest to where he was passing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pontiff. At one point Francis got out of his car and kissed the hands of a sick man. On several occasions he kissed babies raised to him from the crowd by members of his extensive security detail.

The excitement in the congregation was palpable after the pope left the square and headed to the basilica to begin the traditional rituals of inauguration—the imposition of the papal pallium, the presentation of the papal ring, and the obedience. Some people were in tears while others, like Pedro Corraopietroa, the father of 6-month-old Ana María, one of the babies kissed by the pope, could not contain their elation and shared cell phone photos and videos with each other of what they had witnessed only moments earlier.

“It’s an excitement you can’t explain,” said Marina Casa, 40, who came to Rome from Mexico City exclusively for the inauguration. “God blessed us with a Latin American pope. I ask him to come closer to the whole world and to make the church grow with his grace and character and bring it closer to the people.”

A priest giving communion at Pope Francis' installment mass (Photo by Marie Telling / Religio)

A priest gives communion to Catholics at Pope Francis’ installment mass. Marie Telling / Religio.

Kalyona Aloysious, 26, a theology student and seminarian originally from Uganda, said he thinks the pope is already accomplishing this. “I think he’s down to Earth, he’s just open. He speaks about something openly and precise. He’s not talking about an abstract situation, but something clear,” he said. “And you see it when he speaks about something, you see the reaction of the people because he is speaking of what people really are experiencing, not something that is so far from them.”

Paola David, 40, who is from Argentina, said she felt great pride in having a pope from her country and thought the church would benefit from Argentinian style Catholicism, which she described as, “Announce and denounce: announce Christ and denounce injustice.”

Pope Francis’ alleged failure to denounce injustices during Argentina’s dirty war in the 1970s has raised some controversy since his election. Cristian Pascuchelo, 30, who came to St. Peter’s from Buenos Aires for the inauguration, summed up what seemed to be the prevailing attitude in the square about the controversy. “People didn’t know about it at the time,” he said. “The father acted according to what he knew and did what he could.”

But the overwhelming feeling of the ceremony was one of adoration and celebration. At the end of the mass, the choir’s spellbinding hymns filling the air, hundreds of priests walked into the square to offer communion to worshipers. Flags from all parts of the world waved high as thousands of people, many of whom did not share a common language, peacefully lined up to take communion under a vast blue sky.

“The weather today is beautiful,” said Tran Minh Khanh, a 35-year seminarian from Bien Hoa, Vietnam.  “Yesterday it was raining and tomorrow it’s also supposed to rain. But today, with the blue skies and sunshine, it is a blessing from God.”

Additional reporting by Jesse Marx, Jeff Tyson, Angela Reece and Morgan M. Davis.  Video by Harman Boparai and Stephen Jiwanmall.

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4 Responses to “An Opulent Installation for a Man of the Poor”

  1. Kimberly Winston
    March 20, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

    This is just an excellent on-the-ground piece, made very rich by the quotes and especially the context. Excellent work.

  2. Margarita Tarragona
    March 20, 2013 at 8:51 pm #

    Lovely piece, it made me feel a bit of the emotions that were felt in the square.

    March 24, 2013 at 4:07 am #

    Excellent piece. Hope to be Reading more done by this writer. Great job of a unique moment.

    March 27, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

    Excellent work on an important event. You made me feel like I was there. Thank you.

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