Pope greets faithful in his first audience

Benedict XVI pledges to foster peace, deepen Christian roots in Europe


VATICAN CITY - The regular rhythms of the Vatican began returning yesterday as Pope Benedict XVI held the traditional Wednesday papal audience, using the occasion to express what may become a central theme of his papacy: the Christian roots of Europe.

Addressing thousands of pilgrims in St. Peter's Square, the new pontiff said he chose the name Benedict for several reasons, among them the role that St. Benedict of Norcia, the fifth-century founder of the Benedictine order of monks, had in spreading Christianity in Europe.

"He represents a fundamental point of reference for the unity of Europe and a strong reminder of the unrenounceable Christian roots of its culture and civilization," the pope said in Italian, one of six languages he used yesterday.

As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his name before he was chosen as pope, he wrote often of his worries that Europe had forgotten its Christian roots and thus was in danger of losing its identity and spiritual grounding. His choice, as a European cardinal and one who focused on the Roman Catholic Church's decline in Europe, has led to much speculation that he will push for a "re-evangelization" of Europe, though he has not announced any specific plan for doing so.

Benedict is significant, too, as one of the patron saints of Europe. Pope Benedict said he also chose the name in recognition of Pope Benedict XV, who worked for peace during World War I. He called Benedict XV "that courageous prophet of peace, who guided the church through turbulent times of war."

"In his footsteps, I place my ministry in the service or reconciliation and harmony between peoples," the pope said.

Though liberal Catholics have criticized his earlier opinions as cardinal that they called hard-line and divisive, in his nine days as pontiff, Pope Benedict has repeatedly reached out in his speeches to Jews, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and other branches of Christianity, emphasizing that his reign would be devoted to human unity.

In the months before Pope John Paul II died, the Wednesday audiences - prayers and greetings open to almost anyone - had virtually ended because of his fragile health and long hospital stays. Yesterday, Pope Benedict announced that he would "start anew" the audiences after the "pious death of my venerated predecessor, John Paul II."

Although he was not much in the public eye as a cardinal and does not seem naturally comfortable being the center of attention as pope, Benedict XVI has kept a grueling schedule of public events, and seems to be warming to the role.

As on Sunday, when he was formally installed as pope, he toured St. Peter's Square yesterday in his popemobile - again without protective glass, though surrounded by security guards. And as is customary in the audiences, he read out - to loud cheers - the towns and organizations of pilgrims in the crowd. Devotees were from Mexico, Germany, France, Portugal and Poland, along with large numbers of Italians.

The crowds, in return, seem to be warming to the new pope.

"It's beautiful and really moving to see a pope among the people," said Elena Trivitera, 13, holding up a sign greeting the pope from her school in Sicily, whose members had traveled to Rome for the audience. "He is out getting to know us, and we are getting to know him."

For the first time as pope, he greeted people in Spanish, the main language in Latin America, where half the world's Roman Catholics live.

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