VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis received ambassadors to the Holy See from around the world Friday morning, calling himself a bridge builder who wants to foster relations with Islam and countries such as China that have no diplomatic envoys to the Vatican.
"Fighting poverty, both material and spiritual, building peace and constructing bridges, these are the reference points for a journey that I want to invite each of the countries represented here to take up," Francis said.
Inside a grand hall of the Apostolic Palace, decorated with wall-to-wall paintings, the pope shook hands with about 180 diplomats, closing his week of meetings with spiritual and political leaders since his election on March 13.
"There cannot be true peace . . . if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights, without at the same time caring for the good of others," the pope said.
Francis thanked political and religious leaders from Islamic countries who attended his inauguration Mass this past Tuesday. He also expressed his interest in a dialogue with atheists, and the need to build ties with countries that don't have diplomatic relations with the Vatican, such as China.
As a son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, the pope said that dialogue between different groups and cultures has always been important to him. Francis is the first Jesuit and Latin American pope. He named himself after St. Francis of Assisi, the Italian saint and protector of nature, peace and the poor.
In the first days of his pontificate, Francis has already given priority to relations with the outer world, signaling an agenda of interfaith dialogue and global issues. The subtext to his mission of helping the poor worldwide, experts say, might require extensive travel.
"We know that he doesn't like to travel too much," said author and Vatican expert Marco Politi, "but this was his life as archbishop."
Ignazio Ingrao of the Italian conservative magazine Panorama said he thinks Francis might turn into a globe-trotter, similar to John Paul II.
"He is very attentive to his pastoral message, because he comes from such a big metropolis like Buenos Aires," Ingrao said. "So I think he will have wide attention internationally, outside Europe for sure."
Francis received Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in a private lunch this week, followed by an exchange of gifts. As cardinal, Jorge Mario Bergoglio criticized the Argentine government, under both Nestor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina, speaking out against legalization of abortion and gay marriage.
The pope also met with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, whose country is gearing up for the World Youth Day in July, an international gathering of millions of youth organized by the Catholic Church, which Francis is expected to attend.
"You are all very lucky to have him, because he is a great pope," Rousseff said to a crowd of Argentine journalists after her meeting with the pope.
"But like we always say, the pope is Argentine, but God is Brazilian," she added.
With the trip to Brazil officially scheduled, other Latin American countries are inviting the pope to pay a visit, said the Holy See press officer, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. Argentina expects to be favored in the bid, however Mexicans, too, think it could be their turn.