Pope Francis began his address during the March 19 ceremony marking his installation to the papacy as he has nearly every other public speech since his election just under a week ago: with a passing reference to his predecessor Benedict XVI. “We are close to him with our prayers, full of affection and gratitude,” said Francis. But even if hadn’t, the comparisons would be inevitable. At 76, Francis walks with a limp and needs help navigating the stairs outside St. Peter’s Basilica. But his presence at the pulpit projects far more strength than what the 85-year-old theologian who came before him was able to muster.
In February, Benedict became the first Pontiff in 600 years to resign from the papacy, ending a pontificate under which the Vatican was rocked by scandal and internal divisions. Francis, by contrast, in his every public word and repeated gestures of humility seems to offer the promise of renewal of the Church’s badly damaged image. “One of the great hopes that everyone has is that this will be the Pope who will get people to like the church again,” says Alexander Lucie-Smith, a parish priest in the U.K. and a writer for the Catholic Herald. “If he can change the mood music, that will be an incredibly important achievement.”
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Before the Mass began, the Pope had toured St. Peter’s Square in an open-air jeep for nearly half an hour, waving to the cheering crowds. At one point he dismounted, and walked to bless a disabled man held up by his friends by the barrier. The rain that had poured almost without stop since Francis’ election the week before had given way to a bright Roman sun. Unlike in many of his previous public appearances, Pope Francis didn’t go off script. But his prepared remarks — delivered as the homily in a Mass held before more than 150,000 people — reinforced what has become the central message of his early papacy: the church must protect the weak. “Certainly, Jesus conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it?” Francis said. The task Christ asked of his disciple was clear: Feed my lambs. “Only those who serve with love are able to protect,” he concluded.
Francis seems less skilled in delivering prepared remarks than speaking off the cuff or leaning forward to offer a joke to the person in front of him. But his words were chosen carefully. In attendance were delegations from 132 countries and religious organizations, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden; Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Francis’ native Argentina; the German Chancellor Angela Merkel; the Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe; Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians; and dozens of other dignitaries. “It was a remarkable homily,” says Jason Berry, author of Render unto Rome, a book about financial impropriety in the Catholic Church. “He’s calling the leaders of the world to a moral agenda in a fashion that we have not seen in a many years. No disrespect to Benedict, but he became so compromised by the sex-abuse crisis and by the Vatileaks scandal that his stature as moral statesman on the global stage was compromised.”
Francis may be on the way to changing the tune in the Catholic Church. The question is whether he will be able to get the rest of the Vatican to follow. Benedict came into the papacy loaded with hopes for reform, only to get bogged down with the spreading sex-abuse scandal and vicious infighting within the Vatican. On March 19, the morning before Francis spoke, the Washington Post published an article claiming that as an Argentine Archbishop Francis may have moved too slowly to stop priests under his authority from abusing children. It was a reminder of the challenges the new Pope will have to overcome if he is going to succeed. “The Pope cannot be a champion of human rights and an advocate for the world’s poor if he is continuously trailed and followed by the sexual-abuse crisis,” says Berry. It was only appropriate, that Francis ended his homily with another one of his common refrains. “Pray for me,” he said.