Pope Benedict XVI begins ministry as head of church

In a liturgy rich with symbols and promises, Pope Benedict XVI formally began his ministry as head of the universal church, and Catholics from around the world pledged their love and obedience to him.

Catholic News Service reports that on Sunday morning Rome time, Pope Benedict - elected early last week - walked down to the tomb of the martyred St. Peter in the Vatican basilica to pay homage to the first bishop of Rome.

Then, with some 150 cardinals, he processed into a sun-bathed St. Peter's Square to begin the Mass and receive the main symbols of his office: the fisherman's ring and the pallium.

"At this moment, weak servant of God that I am, I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity," Pope Benedict said in his homily.

The 78-year-old pope said he would rely on the prayers of all Catholics and the grace of God.

"I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone," he said.

The new pope said his inaugural Mass was not the moment to present "a program of governance," but rather a time to promise to try be a good shepherd to Christ's flock, to rescue those who are lost, to help the poor and to build unity among all believers in Christ.

An estimated 350,000 people attended the Mass, including delegations from more than 130 countries and from dozens of Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant churches.

The crowd was dotted by faithful waving flags, especially German flags.

Italian President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, King Juan Carlos of Spain and Britain's Prince Philip were seated alongside the altar.

Religious calendars created some complications for some delegations. Israel was represented by its ambassador to the Vatican, although the inauguration took place on the first full day of the weeklong Passover observance. Sixteen Orthodox churches sent representatives even though 24 April was Palm Sunday on the Julian calendar most of them follow.

Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of state, handed Pope Benedict the fisherman's ring, which the new pope placed on the ring finger of his right hand. Cardinal Sodano prayed that "the Spirit of love" would fill the new pope with the strength and meekness needed to minister to Christians "in the unity of communion."

In his homily, Pope Benedict said, "One of the basic characteristics of a shepherd must be to love the people entrusted to him, even as he loves Christ whom he serves."

"Loving means giving the sheep what is truly good, the nourishment of God's truth, of God's word, the nourishment of his presence which he gives us in the Blessed Sacrament," he said.

The new pope asked for the prayers of the entire church that he would grow in his love for the Lord and for the members of the church and prayers that he would be strong in the face of those who threaten the church.

Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, South Korean Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan and Cardinal Medina represented the College of Cardinals.

The bread and wine consecrated by Pope Benedict during the Mass were brought up to him by Catholics from Hungary, Croatia, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Italy, China and Peru; many in the procession wore their national costumes.

During the offertory procession and the act of obedience, Pope Benedict smiled broadly, listened attentively, stroked the cheeks of the young and offered his blessing.

At the end of the Mass, Pope Benedict took his first ride in the popemobile, standing in the back of the open vehicle, waving to the crowd and blessing them with his right hand, newly weighted by the fisherman's ring.

He then went into St. Peter's Basilica where a chair was set on an oriental rug before the main altar. Members of the government delegations were led into the basilica to greet him and pose for photographs.

Pope Benedict was to meet yesterday with the delegations from the other Christian churches and from other religions. A separate audience was planned for Catholic pilgrims from Germany.

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26 Apr 2005