VATICAN CITY, April 24 -- Pope Benedict XVI, employing ancient symbols of power and humility, ceremonially assumed leadership of the Roman Catholic Church on Sunday and unveiled a broad manifesto of moral and social themes he expects to pursue as head of a billion-member congregation.
Benedict, draped in gold, presided at an outdoor Mass at St. Peter's Square, whose twin colonnadesembraced hundreds of thousands of worshippers. The crowd spilled down the broad Via della Conciliazione toward the Tiber River as flags of different nations flapped briskly in a spring breeze.
Amid the splendor and adulation, the new pontiff began his sermon, delivered in Italian, on a humble note. "At this moment, weak servant of God that I am, I must assume this enormous task, which truly exceeds all human capacity. How can I do this? How will I be able to do it?" Benedict asked. Then invoking saints and his vast earthly congregation, he said, "I am not alone. I do not have to carry alone what in truth I could never carry alone."
The massive throng responded with frequent, if somewhat tentative applause, to the new pope's words -- they clapped most enthusiastically when the name of Benedict's predecessor Pope John Paul II, was mentioned.
John Paul died on April 2 and the new pontiff was elected last Tuesday.
Benedict smiled infrequently, but looked cheerful at the end of the service, when he mounted an open, white, jeep-like automobile for a tour of the square. Well-wishers shouted "Viva!" and "Benedict, Benedict." Unlike the "popemobile" of John Paul, who was target of a 1981 assassination attempt, Benedict's vehicle was not equipped with bulletproof glass.
The Mass and sermon capped a six-day period in which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief defender of dogma for almost 25 years, was transformed into Pope Benedict XVI, Catholicism's 265th pontiff. Ratzinger was well-known inside Vatican walls, at Catholic conferences and his books were prominent on theological library shelves.
Vatican officials worked hard to reintroduce him as Benedict, leader of all Catholics. Sometimes, it was done through ubiquitous official television cameras, which recorded him greeting followers on the street, blessing children and smiling expansively. Sometimes it was accomplished by way of chatty associates who described his personal traits -- everything from his love of piano and Mozart to his sly humor to his willingness to do his own housekeeping. During a Mass in the Sistine Chapel last Wednesday, Benedict himself softened a persistent image of closed-mindedness by reaching out to other faiths.
On Sunday, he gave the widest portrait yet of his thoughts, pledging "not to pursue my own ideas, but to listen, together with the whole Church, to the word and the will of the Lord."
When he was a cardinal in charge of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Benedict referred to other faiths as deficient. Sunday, he greeted "all those who have been reborn in the sacrament of Baptism but are not yet in full communion with us" as well as "brothers and sisters of the Jewish people, to whom we are joined by a great shared spiritual heritage."
"Finally," he concluded, "Like a wave gathering force, my thoughts go out to all men and women of today, to believers and non-believers alike."
Along with spiritual problems , Benedict briefly addressed concrete sources of day-to-day suffering. "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," he said. At one point, he sounded like an environmentalist.
"The earth's treasures no longer serve to build God's garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction," Benedict said.
And he turned his attention to the deeds of statesmen. Recalling that John Paul had criticized world leaders, Benedict said, "The pope was addressing the mighty, the powerful of this world, who feared that Christ might take away something of their power if they were to let him in. Yes, he would certainly have taken something away from them: the dominion of corruption, the manipulation of law and the freedom to do as they pleased."
This has been a seamless papal transition. Long before John Paul died, Benedict had become a leading Vatican voice on diverse church issues. He delivered the sermon at John Paul's funeral and another at a Mass celebrated just before the opening of the conclave of cardinals who elected him. The conclave lasted only two days. Benedict then reappointed all the officials who served in John Paul's cabinet. The only vacant position is his old job at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Yet as he emerged from St. Peter's Basilica on Sunday morning, Benedict seemed tense. His eyes shifted from side to side and his voice occasionally wavered. The audience included President Bush's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain and other dignitaries.
Benedict's inauguration had its roots in medieval ritual, was set against Renaissance splendor and broadcast around the world via 21st century technology. He sat on a white throne and received a pair of papal symbols deeply rooted in Catholic history. One was the "pallium," a lambswool stole decorated with five red crosses and pierced by pins. The crosses represent wounds of Christ, the pins, nails driven into his hands and feet when he was crucified. Benedict ordered up the stole in the style worn by medieval popes -- Catholic commentators said that the choice was part of Benedict's desire to renew old traditions. In the sermon, he said the stole represented the "yoke" of Christ placed on the shoulders of the popes. He also carried a silver staff that symbolized his role as shepherd of his flock.
He then received the "fisherman's ring" that is also his seal of office and symbol of authority. It bore an image of a fisherman -- the pre-apostle occupation of St. Peter, founder of the Roman church. Shells -- another ancient symbol of Christianity -- were embroidered on the pope's ceremonial robes.
Although he became pope immediately upon his election and his decision to accept, the pallium and ring signified the beginning of his ministry. He took the opportunity to emphasize the philosophical as well as theological base for his beliefs. He voiced distrust of ideologies, an attitude that biographers attribute to contact with Nazi rule in Germany and aversion to Marxism in Europe. "All ideologies of power justify themselves in exactly this way, they justify the destruction of whatever would stand in the way of progress and the liberation of humanity," he said.
He also challenged those who consider demands of "God's will" as excessively limiting. "God's will does not weigh down on us, oppressing us and taking away our freedom," he said. "To know what God wants, to know where the path of life is found, God's will does not alienate us, it purifies us -- even if this can be painful -- and so it leads us to ourselves."
His sermon swung between segments s of optimism and intense pessimism, almost in rhythm with the Roman sun that ducked in and out of the clouds. At one point, he called the church young and alive; at another, he described the world as a sea of alienation. In conclusion, he made the closest thing to an emotional appeal: "Pray for me," he implored, "That I may not flee for fear of the wolves."