VATICAN CITY – Huge crowds gathered in St. Peter’s Square and spilled into side streets Tuesday morning as Pope Francis prepared for his official inauguration as leader of the Roman Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion followers.
Up to a million people are expected to jam into and around this tiny city-state to witness the highly ceremonial event, which will also be attended by royalty, government leaders and religious figures from around the world. Pilgrims began camping out overnight to claim a spot from which to watch the installation of the 266th pope in the church’s history and the first from the Americas.
The man formerly known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected by his fellow cardinals last week to succeed Benedict XVI, who ended his pontificate for reasons of declining health.
In less than a week, the new pope has already brought a more spontaneous, down-to-earth style to the office, delighting many Catholics with his off-the-cuff remarks, sense of humor and approachability. Before the inauguration Mass begins Tuesday morning, Francis is expected to depart from tradition and cruise around St. Peter’s Square in the popemobile to greet the faithful.
Besides the masses of pilgrims, dozens of heads of state and government are to attend the event, including Vice President Joe Biden of the U.S. Sunny skies smiled down on Rome on Tuesday after days of gloom and rain.
Francis, 76, inherits a church facing major challenges, including a troubled Vatican bureaucracy and declining devotion in traditional strongholds such as Europe, though the church is growing in other places, such as Africa and Asia.
He is the first Jesuit to become pope, a religious order that stresses humility and action on behalf of the poor. As part of his simpler, less formal style, he ordered that the inauguration Mass be limited to two hours and trimmed other ceremonial elements from the program.