ROME - In the beginning, Pope Benedict XVI read these words: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth."
And the pope and millions of viewers watching him on Italian television last night saw that it was good.
The pontiff launched a marathon reading of the Bible, from Genesis to Apocalypse, broadcast live on state television. It will last seven days and six nights. The roster of about 1,300 readers features former Italian presidents, current Cabinet ministers, soccer stars, foreign diplomats, cardinals, intellectuals, actors and opera singers, as well as ordinary citizens.
The Vatican invited a multifaith, multiethnic cross-section of participants to the event in the Holy Cross in Jerusalem Basilica here. They include Orthodox clergymen; an Algerian writer and five other Muslims; and the Israeli ambassador to the Vatican, along with a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp and 14 other Jewish readers.
Organizers wanted to make it clear, the Vatican said in a statement, that "the Bible belongs to everyone without any discrimination or cultural or ideological barrier." The message was underscored by the pope's decision to take part, as the pontiff explained in comments to the faithful after Mass yesterday at St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
"In this way, the word of God can enter homes to accompany lives of families and individuals," Benedict XVI said. "A seed that if well-received will not fail to bring abundant fruits."
Although the pope tends to have a quiet, reserved style, he liked the idea of making the Bible accessible, Vatican officials said. Moreover, the timing was good because yesterday marked the start of the Bishops Synod.
"The reason the pope has agreed is to give his support to a program intended to bring the listening and reading of the Bible to a wider public of every age and condition," said The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, in an interview.
The first segment ended with Roberto Benigni, the actor-director who won two Oscars for Life is Beautiful.