Thousands greet pope on first pastoral trip to Venice

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. Singing and chanting well-wishers welcomed Benedict, draped with a red cape against the chilly wind, as church bells pealed and boat horns blared.

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, considered to be 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.

The highlight of the visit will be the open-air Mass today, 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 today, Benedict will return to St. Mark's for an assembly of bishops, stopping outside again to greet well-wishers.

Then he will ride in a gondola 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.