VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI (search) said Monday he felt like a "guillotine" was coming down on him when it appeared he might be elected pontiff, saying he prayed to God to be spared but that "evidently this time he didn't listen to me."
Benedict's playfulness during an audience with German pilgrims offered the first insight into what may have been going on in his mind during the secret conclave that elected him leader of the world's 1.1 billion Catholics.
It also underscored that the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — known as the stern German guardian of the Vatican's conservative doctrine — has a sense of humor, knows how to work a crowd and seems to be winning over fans.
"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," the 78-year-old 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," Benedict joked.
He said that during the secret deliberations, a fellow cardinal wrote him a note, reminding him of the sermon he delivered during the funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II (search), 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 do was say yes. I am trusting in God, and I am trusting in you, dear friends."
Benedict was elected the first German pope 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, he was considered old to be elected pope.
Benedict 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 Monday 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.
Benedict noted that the world is now 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."
In the homily Sunday, Benedict specifically mentioned Jews — but not Muslims — and reached out to other Christians, calling several times for full communion of Christians.
On Monday, the pope told ecumenical leaders he fully supports the need to work toward uniting Christians and said their presence at his installation was a good sign.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (search) said afterward that he was "encouraged by the way Pope Benedict went out of his way to underline the commitment to ecumenism."
In Moscow, the head of Russia's Orthodox Church, Patriarch Alexy II, said a visit by Benedict to Russia would be possible only after the two churches resolve longtime differences.
Later Monday, Benedict visited a packed Rome basilica, St. Paul outside the Walls. There, he read a biblical passage from the apostle Paul to the Romans — to show his connection to the city of Rome, where he is bishop. He also prayed by the place where Paul is believed to have been buried.
Thousands gathered outside the church to greet the new pontiff, with elderly people pushing their way through crowds and adults climbing on the shoulders of friends in hopes of seeing Benedict in person.
"He has a different kind of charisma from John Paul," said Anja Tartarini, a 31-year-old actress. "He says he feels inadequate like a child, but with unbelievable humility he accepted this task."
Emanuele Pierantonio, 32, a government employee, said he was moved by Benedict's human touch.
"Someone in my group yelled 'Your Holiness!' to him as he was greeting a baby and then he turned to us, made a nod with his head and I had the impression that he tried to make eye contact with each one of us," Pierantonio said.
Benedict received a rousing welcome by his fellow countrymen during his audience Monday. He shook hands with pilgrims and blessed a child handed to him — but then quickly got down to business.
He apologized for being late, explaining that the meeting with religious leaders had run long. "The Germans are used to punctuality," he joked. "I'm already very Italian."
Benedict was interrupted several times by applause and cheering from the crowds. "Benedict sent from God!" they chanted. In German, the chant rhymes: "Benedikt Gott Geschickt."
"I was quite prejudiced against him at first," said Maria Theising-Otte, a teacher from a Catholic grammar school in Handrup, Lower Saxony, who attended the audience. "But now that I've seen him, read about him, I've changed my mind. I think he came across quite human, very modest and decent."