VATICAN CITY, April 20 -- Pope Benedict XVI reached out to Roman Catholic reformers and other religions in his first sermon as pontiff Wednesday, saying confidently that John Paul II left him a church that "looks serenely at the past and does not fear the future."
On the first full day of the new papacy, Catholic leaders from diverse countries spoke in unusually frank terms to try to allay concerns that the pontiff is rigid and will lead the church into an era of isolation and confrontation.
Benedict, the name Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger took after his election as the 265th pope, presided at a televised Mass in the Sistine Chapel, where a day earlier the College of Cardinals chose him to lead the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.
Speaking in Latin to cardinals who sat in rows, dressed in golden robes, the man who served as John Paul's enforcer of religious dogma delivered a softer message than has been customary from him in recent months.
"I want to forcefully affirm the strong desire to continue in the task of implementing the Second Vatican Council," he said, referring to the meeting of Catholic leaders four decades ago that was designed to set the church on the road to modernization. Vatican II, as it is called, continues to be relevant in today's "globalized society," he said.
Benedict's critics contend he has been a leader in gutting Vatican II reforms, especially in the realm of papal power-sharing with bishops and devolving authority to grass-roots levels of the church. In Wednesday's sermon, Benedict was vague on what he planned to do, but asked bishops for "prayers and advice."
Vatican II also promoted contacts with other Christian religions. "I am willing to do everything in my power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism," Benedict said Wednesday, "and am fully determined to accept every initiative that seems opportune to promote contact and understanding."
Talks with non-Christian religions, Benedict said, should also continue, but with a focus on coming to terms with past conflicts before getting into theology.
He deeply praised his predecessor, John Paul: "I seem to feel his strong hand gripping mine, I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear his words, especially to me, at this moment, saying: 'Be not afraid.' " John Paul uttered those words in his first address to the faithful at St. Peter's Square after becoming pope in 1978.
Later, the new pope made his first public trip beyond Vatican City, if only about a hundred yards down a street. Dressed in the all-white robes that are essentially the working clothes of a pope, he briefly visited his former apartment near a main automobile entrance to the Vatican. A crowd of onlookers chanted his name and he blessed a pair of children.
He came and went by convertible sedan, a break with John Paul's practice of using the bulletproof vehicle known as the popemobile.
The Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said Benedict would live for the time being at Domus Sanctae Marthae or St. Martha's House, the residence hotel on Vatican grounds where the cardinals stayed during their conclave. After renovations are completed at the papal apartment that faces St. Peter's Square, Benedict will move there.
His morning message at Mass contrasted markedly in tone with the homily he delivered Monday on the conclave's eve, and with some of his other remarks and writings.
The Monday sermon compared followers of Catholicism to passengers in a boat buffeted by waves of fashionable ideologies and guided by the "dictatorship of relativism," the Vatican's term for the notion that there are no absolute truths.