Thousands pack St. Peter’s Square for Pope Francis’ inauguration

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ROME (CNN) — Through a square bustling with adoring tourists, locals, pilgrims and dignitaries, Pope Francis made his way atop an open-top vehicle on Tuesday en route to a Mass that will officially inaugurate him Bishop of Rome.

He wore the simple iron cross he wore as a cardinal and which he had on when he first appeared to the world as pope.

He stepped out of his sports utility vehicle to kiss the head of a man with a physical disability.

When the gathered faithful at St. Peter’s Square held up babies and young children for him to kiss, he obliged.

Even though at least a dozen security officers in suits walked alongside the SUV as he circled the square, his decision to bypass the Popemobile, which his last two predecessors used, was telling.

The Mercedes Benz G-Class SUV afforded him the kind of direct contact with people he has embraced since becoming pope.

Had he been in the Popemobile, he would have been behind bulletproof glass, which was installed in 1981 after an assassination attempt on John Paul II.

The ceremony — the “Mass inaugurating the Petrine Ministry of the Bishop of Rome” — will be short in keeping with the spirit of simplicity embraced by the new Holy Father, the Vatican has said, lasting about two hours.

Francis has already made an impression as a pope of the people, who is concerned about the welfare of the poor. But he inherits a church wracked by a decades-old sexual abuse scandal and claims of corruption in the clergy.

The pope’s path

Francis began his day in the residence Santa Marta, where the cardinals stayed for the conclave. Not until he has been inaugurated, will he take up residency in the papal apartment.

He climbed aboard the SUV before the Mass began and took a ride through the throng in the square, spending 17 minutes circling through the crowds.

He then took part in ceremonies within St. Peter’s Basilica, before emerging once more in solemn procession to be seated before the massed crowds in the square.

There he was presented first with a lamb’s wool shawl, known as the pallium, to represent his role as “the good shepherd,” then with the symbolic Fisherman’s Ring, to represent his role of spreading the gospel.

The Mass is now under way before the massed crowds.

The pope, who plans to deliver his homily in Italian, isn’t expected to stay strictly within a script.

He will have prepared comments but, his spokesmen say, he might diverge because he likes to be spontaneous.

Since his selection during the conclave, Francis has had a propensity to rewrite the rules of how a pope is traditionally to behave, and he has at times not stuck to the plan.

A river of dignitaries

Dignitaries in St. Peter’s Square for the Mass include European Union leaders Jose Manuel Barroso and Herman Van Rompuy, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of the pope’s native Argentina, and Zimbabwe’s controversial President Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe is subject to an EU travel ban but allowed to visit the continent for religious events and international conferences.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden will lead the U.S. presidential delegation for the Mass, the White House said Friday, with House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi also among the party.

On Friday, House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, said he would send a separate bipartisan congressional delegation.

A week of ceremonies

The choice of day to anoint Pope Francis as the Holy Father of the Roman Catholic Church carries a rich symbolism: It is the day that Catholics celebrate the Feast of St. Joseph to honor Jesus’ father on Earth, the carpenter Joseph.

It also happens to be Father’s Day in Italy.

It is also one of the busiest times of the year on the Christian calendar, which will mean many public appearances in series for the new pontiff.

Less than a week away is Palm Sunday, the holiday that kicks off Holy Week, which culminates in Easter celebrations.

Foreign dignitaries, royalty, heads of state, and representatives of other religions will attend Tuesday’s Mass.

Those delegations are among scores from nations and international organizations traveling to the Vatican, led by heads of states and governments.

Delegations are also on hand from Italy and the pope’s native Argentina.

There are other groups from the Americas, including Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Canada, and European nations such as Holland, Belgium and Germany.

Representatives from across Christianity — Eastern and Western — will also be present, as will members of other religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainismn.

Hada Messia reported from Rome, Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London and Ben Brumfield wrote in Atlanta. CNN’s Dugald McConnell, Brian Todd, Claudia Rebaza and Jason Hanna also contributed to this report.