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Pope Stresses Interfaith Dialogue

Pope Benedict XVI says he's open to dialogue both within his own Church and with other faiths during his first public Mass Wednesday, signaling a commitment to continue the reconciliatory stance of his predecessors.

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Benedict XVI celebrated his first mass as pope on Wednesday

A day after his swift election triggered surprise, shock and jubilation around the world, Joseph Ratzinger now the new Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass with the red-hatted Roman Catholic cardinals who elected him in the Renaissance Sistine Chapel in Vatican City where the secret conclave was held.

Dressed in resplendent white and gold vestments and speaking in Latin during his first public mass as pope, Benedict XVI said he felt inadequacy and turmoil at his election, a choice that has gladdened conservatives and caused dismay among more liberal defenders of the Catholic faith.

"On the one hand I have a sense of inadequacy and human turmoil at the responsibility entrusted to me yesterday," he said. "On the other hand, I feel living in me a deep gratitude to God who does not abandon his flock but guides them always."

Der Papst hat Geburtstag

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, right, adjusts his skull cap after congratulating Pope John Paul II, left, on his 83rd birthday during a solemn ceremony to proclaim four new saints in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Sunday, May 18, 2003.

The 78-year-old Pontiff told the 114 cardinals who had picked him that he felt his predecessor, Pope John Paul, was guiding him.

"I seem to feel (John Paul II's) strong hand holding mine, I seem to see his smiling eyes and hear him speaking to me at this moment, saying: 'Don't be afraid.'"

Benedict XVI added that he would stay strong and try to be a guiding force for the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

"By choosing me… the Lord has called me to be a 'rock' on which everybody can stand with confidence," he said. "I ask him to make up for my weaknesses so I might be a bold and faithful pastor of his flock, always open to the inspiration of his spirit."

New pope wants to build bridges

But, probably the most closely-watched message in the new pope's address was his assurance that he wanted open dialogue both within his own Church and with other faiths and cultures. Widely seen as a strict guardian of Catholic orthodoxy, he is a controversial figure.

Many particularly question his commitment to ecumenism, given that he has in the past upset moderates and other Christians whose churches he described as 'deficient.' Benedict has also made clear in recent speeches that he will brook no dissent in his Church and spoke out earlier this week against non-Catholic Christian sects.

Kardinal Joseph Ratzinger

However, on Wednesday, the new pope underlined that theological dialogue was necessary and vowed to maintain contacts with other Christian churches.

"The current successor of (Saint) Peter…is willing to do everything in his power to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism," the silver-haired pope said.

He also appeared to be committed to the reconciliatory stance adopted by his predecessor to engage in dialogue with all religions and cultures as already urged by Muslim and Jewish leaders.

"I will spare no effort and commitment to continue the promising dialogue with other civilizations that was started by my venerable predecessors," he said. "I welcome everybody with simplicity and love to assure them that the Church wants to continue in open and sincere dialogue with them, in search of true good of man and society."

A misunderstood pope?

Given the continuing criticism of the new pope by those expecting a reforming hand within the Church, especially within Germany, some have said that Benedict, a respected theologian of sharp intellect, has also been widely misunderstood.

His friends and colleagues have said the world had yet to see the warmer side of a man who has been dubbed in the Italian press as the "panzer cardinal" and "God's Rottweiler."

"You have to be slow to make a judgment," said Cardinal Edward Egan of New York told Reuters. "This is a really wonderful, calm, thoughtful human being."

"We've always had a very negative picture of Ratzinger in Germany," Cardinal Karl Lehmann, chairman of the German Bishops' Conference told German public broadcaster BR.

"But that doesn't do justice to Ratzinger as a theologian," he said, adding that he knew the present pope since 1962. "We have a very limited picture of him here in Germany. But that doesn't mean that one has to agree with him in all individual questions of the Church."

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