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  • John Thavis

Simplicity and compassion front and center

How does Pope Francis understand “papal power”?

He answered that question today with these words: “lowly, concrete and faithful service.”

At an inaugural Mass rich in traditional symbols of the papal office, attended by hundreds of secular and religious leaders from around the world, Pope Francis told the world that his role would be that of a protector – especially of “the poorest, the weakest, the least important.”

His words confirmed what has already become a new papal style, one that favors the common touch over formal ceremony, and humility over authority.

The pope’s day began with a long ride in an open jeep through St. Peter’s Square. What struck me was that the pontiff, smiling and giving a thumbs-up, seemed to be connecting with individuals in the crowd.

As I watched on a monitor from the ABC News platform, I saw the pope’s jeep suddenly stop. Francis got out of the vehicle, walked over to the barricades and kissed a disabled man. It was a brief moment in a long day, but one that will remain in people’s memory.

The inauguration Mass marks the official start of a pope’s public ministry, and it’s steeped in tradition. Pope Francis made several small but significant changes in the liturgy:

— He abbreviated the “act of obedience” performed by the cardinals. In a modification only recently introduced by the master of papal liturgical ceremonies, Msgr. Guido Marini, all cardinals were to have professed obedience to the pope at the beginning of the Mass – which would have likely added an hour and a half to the service.

Pope Francis, who prefers short liturgies, cut that to six representative members of the College of Cardinals.

— He eliminated the offertory procession, which typically features many Catholics or groups of Catholics bringing gifts directly to the seated pope. Vatican officials said this, too, was a move designed to save time. I can’t help but think it also reflected Francis’ desire to remove himself from the center of the liturgical stage.

— He decided not to distribute Communion, leaving that task to priests and deacons. Some have suggested that the pope may have wanted to avoid the embarrassment of giving Communion to VIPs – including some international politicians – who may disagree with some church teachings.

My own theory is that, again, he was removing himself as a celebrity celebrant. For years, people have pulled strings to get into the pope’s Communion line, and it’s often seen as some kind of reward or sign of prestige.

It was Pope Francis’ homily marking the feast of St. Joseph that really caught the tone of the day in its eloquent simplicity. St. Joseph, he said, was above all a protector who worked “discreetly, humbly and silently,” attentive to God’s voice and God’s plan.

This “vocation” of being a protector, he said, involves everyone. It means protecting the weak and vulnerable first of all – children, the elderly, the poor, the sick – and protecting “the beauty of the created world,” as St. Francis demonstrated.

The pope specifically urged political and economic leaders to safeguard the environment. Here we had a first indication that ecology will likely figure as a major theme of this pontificate.

But Francis said ecology begins with the individual, who needs to guard against pride and envy, as well as emotions that “tear down.” People need compassion, he said, and he argued that “tenderness” should not be seen as “the virtue of the weak.”

The liturgy had a strong ecumenical element. The pope was joined by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, considered the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, when he descended to pray in the tomb area of St. Peter’s Basilica.

It was the first time since the Great Schism of 1054 – prompted mainly by disagreement over papal authority – that the ecumenical patriarch had attended a pope’s inaugural Mass.

A few minutes later, the pope slipped on the Fisherman’s Ring. I was told that Francis thought the original choices of the ring design were too ornate, so instead he chose a relatively simple model that had been crafted many years ago. It features St. Peter holding the keys of the papacy.

The people in St. Peter’s Square seem to have caught the “simplicity and compassion” theme of this pontificate, judging by some of the banners that greeted the pope as he made the rounds in his jeep.

One read, “Pope Francis, good morning!” echoing his unpretentious “Good evening” salutation to the crowd just after his election. Another banner declared: “Assisi is waiting for you.” Every expectation is that visiting St. Francis’ birthplace is high on the pope’s to-do list.

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