VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis appointed 19 new cardinals Saturday in a ceremony with retired Pope Benedict XVI, marking the first time the two have appeared together at a public liturgical ceremony since Benedict stepped down a year ago.
This batch of new cardinals is significant because of where the men are from: The group includes prelates from developing countries such as Burkina Faso and Haiti, in line with the pope's belief that the church should do more to help the world's poor.
"If the focus of this important week ends up being this eclectic group of new cardinals, then I don't think most people in the Vatican will complain," said Fr. Alistair Sear, a retired church historian.
Benedict used a side entrance to enter St. Peter's Basilica discreetly and was greeted by applause. He smiled and waved before taking a seat in the front alongside the cardinals. After processing down the aisle at the start of the service, Francis greeted Benedict, clasping him by the shoulders and embracing him. In a sign of respect, Benedict removed his white skullcap as Francis approached.
The crowd erupted in polite applause when one of the new cardinals, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, greeted Benedict in his introductory remarks at the start of the service, saying "We are grateful for your presence here among us."
The former pope's presence is significant on two accounts: it signals both continuity as well as Benedict's approval in the men Francis had chosen. Each of the newly appointed cardinals — after receiving his red hat from Francis — went to Benedict's seat to greet the former pope.
The cardinals will have a deciding hand in picking Francis' successor: all but three of the new cardinals are under the age of 80, the age limit for a cardinal to be eligible to vote for the next pope. That will bring the number of so-called "cardinal electors" to 123, though three existing cardinals will turn 80 within the next three months, reducing the number to 120, which is in line with church guidelines.
The week had been billed as one of the most critical in Francis' year-old papacy, but it concluded with no major changes, placing more attention on the pope's selection of new cardinals.
On Friday, the pontiff participated in the start of a high-profile set of preparatory meetings on family issues including contraception, divorce, and gay unions.
The centerpiece of the week's events — at least in terms of specific changes — was expected to be the findings of commissions of inquiry into the Institute for Religious Works, which includes the Vatican Bank. Instead, those commissions have yielded little in terms solid results — postponing any decision-making to a subsequent round of talks in April or July.
Similarly, the discussions on family issues are setting the stage for a summit in October.
"The end result was that no big decisions have been made," said Paolo Rodari, a veteran Vatican expert with Rome's La Repubblica newspaper. "To be fair, the Vatican never promised major progress would be made at this point. But it's true there was a lot of anticipation there would be big news."
The developments come as the one-year anniversary of Francis' papacy approaches. Pope Benedict XVI shocked the world when he announced he would retire on Feb. 11, 2013, leaving the Vatican as pope on Feb. 28. The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was then elected March 13.
Francis' popularity has soared in the past year, thanks to a humble and informal style and a message of unity, ministry and affection for the unfortunate.
For the faithful in St. Peter's Square on Friday, that was still the case — there was little concern about the lack of progress on reform issues at the Vatican Bank or in other areas.
"I have faith the Holy Father is doing what must be done," said Alessandro Vigo, 39-year-old a shop worker. "I'm not qualified to examine every step made, but I believe he's doing the right thing."
Sandro Finci, 77, a retired metal worker, agreed, saying: "We are blessed to have such a holy man as pope and that's enough for me."