VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Roman Catholics backed up for blocks at the Vatican on Tuesday for the strictest security checks in living memory as Pope Francis began a Holy Year with a call to set aside "fear and dread".
Francis launched the year-long religious event, also known as a Jubilee, by pushing open the usually bricked up bronze Holy Door of St. Peter's Basilica and passing through it, following a Mass attended by about 70,000 people in the square outside, according to a Vatican estimate.
Holy Year has long been expected to draw millions to Rome but is opening in the immediate aftermath of attacks in Paris and California.
From early morning, police checked pilgrims, reporters, diplomats and even priests entering the area starting several blocks from St. Peter's Square. Some underwent two body and bag searches as they made their way forward before passing through metal detectors.
"The risk of terrorism will never be zero, we cannot provide absolute security, but we are working to attain the level of security that people rightly ask for," Rome police chief Franco Gabrielli said.
In his homily, Francis urged the faithful to have courage in their spiritual and daily lives: "Let us set aside all fear and dread, for these do not befit men and women who are loved.
"Instead, let us experience the joy of encountering that grace which transforms all things," he said.
During the year-long celebrations, one of the most important events in the 1.2 billion-member Church, the faithful will make pilgrimages to Rome and other religious sites around the world.
A frail looking former Pope Benedict, 88, made one of his few appearances since his shock resignation in 2013. Benedict, who lives in seclusion in the Vatican, embraced Francis before the door.
By passing through the holy door of a church during a Holy Year, Catholics symbolically pass from sin to grace.
Holy Years normally take place every 25 years unless a pope decrees an extraordinary one to bring attention to a particular need or topic.
The next one was to be held in 2025 but Francis, 78, called a special one on the theme of mercy, a major part of his push for a less judgmental and more inclusive Church. "We have to put mercy before judgment," the pontiff said in his homily.
The Church teaches that a Holy Year should be a time of reconciliation with adversaries and an occasion to promote solidarity, hope and justice in the world.
Faithful who make pilgrimages to religious sites or do good works during a Holy Year can receive indulgences, or the remission of punishment for sins, under certain conditions.
The airspace over most of Rome was closed and transport of petrol, gas, weapons, explosives and fireworks was banned. A no-go zone was instituted for vehicles around the Vatican and rubbish bins sealed or removed.
"This security was necessary. It worked very well and it was worth it because we feel safe," said Corrado De Gioia, who came to Rome from Treviso in northern Italy.
Soldiers augmented regular police for a total security force of around 3,000, making the area around the Vatican sometimes seem more like one where a protest demonstration was expected instead of a religious event
Some were unnerved by the show of force.
"Regarding the security, it made me afraid. Those who come here as pilgrims meet the soldiers carrying machine guns, it's scary, you feel threatened," said Italian tourist Daniela Santi.
Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer and Eleanor Biles; Editing by Tom Heneghan