VENICE, Italy – Pope Benedict XVI greeted thousands of faithful packed into Venice's St. Mark's Square Saturday for a pastoral visit, the first by a pope since his predecessor John Paul II plied the canals 26 years ago in a gondola styled for Venice's Byzantine-era rulers.
The pope was ferried in a wooden boat from a helicopter landing pad to St. Mark's, flanked by police in boats and a pair of jet skis. Singing and chanting well-wishers welcomed Benedict, draped with a red cape against the chilly wind, as church bells pealed and boat horns blared.
The pope extended his blessing on the city, recalling Venice's "special vocation over the centuries of being a bridge between East and West.
"Also in our age, with its new prospects and complex challenges, it is called to assume important responsibilities in the promotion of a welcoming and sharing culture, capable of creating bridges of dialogue between people and nations," the pope said in Italian to the crowd of some 25,000.
Benedict, on a two-day visit to tend his flock, was then driven through the throngs filling the arcade-lined piazza in an electric car, coming to a stop at St. Mark's Cathedral, where he prayed before the saint's relics inside.
The pope's first stop was Aquileia, east of Venice, where he was greeted by thousands of yellow-flag waving followers.
Aquileia is the site of an ancient Roman port city upon which was built a basilica, which was considered the mother church for a broad swath of territory uniting the Latin world with the Germanic and Slavic populations during the Middle Ages. Tradition holds that St. Mark evangelized the region, in what would become during the period the second most important diocese after Rome.
Inside the basilica, resplendent with ancient mosaics, the pope addressed bishops from northeastern Italy as well as from Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia in a meeting aimed at renewing old bonds.
He urged them "to inspire a new generation of men and women capable of assuming direct responsibility in various social contexts, in particular the political one."
The highlight of the visit will be the open-air Mass on Sunday, expected to attract as many as 300,000 faithful to a park in Mestere, part of Venice located on the mainland. Workmen have created an enormous domed stage, replicating St. Mark's Basilica, its golden mosaics printed on cloth, to accommodate hundreds of priests who will assist Benedict in the Mass.
Later Sunday, Benedict will return to St. Mark's for an assembly of bishops, stopping outside to again greet followers and well-wishers.
Then he will ride in the same gondola from which John Paul greeted admirers along the Grand Canal in 1985. Benedict, instead, will be taken from St. Mark's Square to the Basilica of Our Lady of Good Health across the mouth of the Grand Canal, where he will meet political, economic and cultural leaders.
The visit is being held under tight security. The center of the town of Aquileia was closed to traffic in anticipation of Benedict's arrival, and police began clearing St. Mark's hours before his arrival there, forbidding entrance to anyone with a backpack or luggage.