Greeting pilgrims, Pope Benedict XVI shows a lighter side

VATICAN CITY - He kissed babies, blessed people in wheelchairs and joked that he felt like a guillotine was falling on him when he realized that he might be elected pope.

He showed he had a sense of humor and knew how to work a crowd - traits the public rarely saw during his quarter-century as the stern German guardian of the church's conservative doctrine.

Pope Benedict XVI's playfulness yesterday was apparent during an audience with German pilgrims who had flocked to his installation Mass a day earlier. At first, he apologized for being late, saying a meeting with religious leaders had run over time.

"The Germans are used to punctuality," he said jokingly. "I'm already very Italian."

And then he shed some light for the first time on what he said was going on in his mind in the hours before he was elected leader of the world's 1.1 billion Roman Catholics.

"As the trend in the ballots slowly made me realize that - in a manner of speaking the guillotine would fall on me - I started to feel quite dizzy," Pope Benedict told his countrymen in his native German, smiling and chuckling. "I thought that I had done my life's work and could now hope to live out my days in peace.

"I told the Lord with deep conviction, 'Don't do this to me. You have younger and better [candidates] who could take up this great task with a totally different energy and with different strength.'"

"Evidently, this time he didn't listen to me," the pope said.

He said that during the secret deliberations, a fellow cardinal had written him a note, reminding him of the sermon he delivered during the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II, in which he referred to a biblical passage where God tells the Apostle Peter to follow him.

"My fellow brother wrote me: 'If the Lord should now tell you, "Follow me," then remember what you preached. Do not refuse. Be obedient.' ... This touched my heart. The ways of the Lord are not comfortable, but we were not created for comfort, but for greatness, for good.

"So in the end, all I could say was yes. I am trusting in God, and I am trusting in you, dear friends."

Pope Benedict was elected the first German pontiff in centuries on April 19 after four rounds of voting - one of the fastest conclaves in 100 years. While he was a leading candidate going into the conclave, at 78 he was considered old to be elected pope.

He officially began his pontificate Sunday during a solemn installation Mass that drew about 400,000 people to the Vatican area, including many world and religious leaders.

The pope met yesterday with the religious leaders who had attended and told Muslim representatives in particular that he wanted to continue building "bridges of friendship" that he said could foster peace in the world.

Pope Benedict pointed out that the world is marked by conflicts but said it longs for peace.

"Yet peace is also a duty to which all peoples must be committed, especially those who profess to belong to religious traditions," he said. "Our efforts to come together and foster dialogue are a valuable contribution to building peace on solid foundations."