VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis toured St. Peter's Square to greet tens of thousands of people attending a rally of prayer, music and speeches Saturday, and he embraced the brother of a Pakistani politician who was assassinated in his country after calling for greater religious freedom for Christians there.
Earlier in the day, the pope met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who made a brief visit to Rome, mindful of the importance of Christian voters back home during the election she faces in September. She joined the pope in expressing concern about the many victims of Europe's economic crisis.
Francis, who is Argentine, has picked up on campaigns by the two previous popes, the Polish John Paul II and German Benedict XVI, to reinvigorate what the Catholic Church sees as flagging religious enthusiasm on a continent with Christian roots, including dwindling number of churchgoers in much of Western Europe.
The vast cobblestone square outside St. Peter's Basilica is traditionally the boundary for pontiffs greeting the faithful at outdoor Vatican gatherings, but Pope Francis keeps stretching the boundaries.
Riding in an open-topped white jeep, Francis zipped through the square to greet the faithful who had been waiting for hours for his arrival at the evening rally designed to encourage Catholics to strengthen their faith. The Vatican estimated the crowd at 200,000.
Waving cheerfully and sometimes blowing kisses to the cheering crowd, Francis kept going in his pope-mobile past the edge of the square and halfway down the Rome boulevard that leads from the Vatican to the Tiber River before turning back. The route took him past cafes, souvenir shops, and a hotel popular with pilgrims.
Francis also embraced Paul Bhatti, a speaker at the rally. His brother Shahbaz, a Pakistani government minister, was assassinated in 2011 after urging reform of a blasphemy law in Pakistan that had targeted Christians.
Earlier in the day, Merkel spoke privately for 45 minutes with the pope at the Apostolic Palace.
Her Christian Democrat party depends heavily on support from Protestant and Catholic voters in Germany, and the chat and photo opportunity could be a welcome campaign boost for a leader largely identified by Europe's economically suffering citizens as a champion of debt reduction, including painful austerity across much of the continent.