VATICAN CITY, March 14 (UPI) -- Pope Francis, in his first mass as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, Thursday urged the church to have courage.
"When we don't walk, we are stuck," Pope Francis said in a homily at the altar in the Sistine Chapel where the conclave of the College of Cardinals that chose him met.
Citing passages from the Psalms, the Gospel of St. Matthew and the Letter of St. Peter, he said, "When we don't build on the rock, what happens? It's what happens to children when they build a sand castle and it all falls down. When we walk without the cross, when we build without the cross and when we confess without the cross, we are not disciples of Christ. We are mundane.
"I would like for all of us, after these days of grace, that we find courage to walk in the presence of God ... and to build the church with the blood of Christ. Only this way will the church move forward."
Francis began his first full day as pope with a visit to the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome.
The Rev. Ludovico Melo, a priest who prayed with him, said the pontiff spent about a half-hour at the basilica, a special place for Jesuits, which included singing a hymn and spoke to people in the church to go to confession, the Italian news agency ANSA reported.
"Mercy, mercy, mercy," the Argentine pope said, Melo indicated.
Pope Francis, the first South American pope elected Wednesday after five votes at the conclave, also prayed before a famous icon of the Virgin Mary called the Salus Populi Romani, ANSA said.
Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio who was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, told the cardinals following the conclave Wednesday that one of his first acts as pope would be a visit to his predecessor.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, plan to be at the inaugural mass Tuesday and lead the U.S. delegation, the White House said.
Biden said in a statement the Catholic church played "an essential role in my life," not just in matters of faith but also "in pursuit of peace and human dignity for all faiths."
Assault weapons ban passes committee
WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday approved a bill on a party-line vote that would ban nearly 160 specific military-style assault weapons.
All 10 Democrats on the committee voted for the bill and all eight Republicans opposed it, after committee debate during which freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, questioned whether the head of the committee, Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., properly understood the Second Amendment, The Washington Post reported.
"Would she deem it consistent with the Bill of Rights for Congress to engage in the same endeavor that we are contemplating doing to the Second Amendment, in the context of the First or Fourth Amendment?" Cruz asked.
"Let me just make a couple of points in response," Feinstein said. "One, I'm not a sixth grader. Senator, I've been on this committee for 20 years."
Feinstein said she had seen gun violence firsthand when San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were killed and pointed out that the victims of the Dec. 14, 2012, massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., "were dismembered."
"I'm not a lawyer, but after 20 years I've been up close and personal to the Constitution," she said.
Feinstein said the bill, which she sponsored, exempts 2,271 weapons.
"Isn't that enough for the people of the United States? Do they need a bazooka? Do they need other high-powered weapons that other people use in close combat?"
Feinstein later apologized to Cruz.
Cruz said he respected her opinion but gun control "should be driven by facts and the data and by the Constitution, not by passion."
The committee has approved four bills in the past week intended to limit gun violence.
Obama, Xi discuss U.S.-China relations
WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- President Obama reiterated his commitment to cooperation in addressing global economic issues in a call to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the White House said.
Obama called Xi Thursday to congratulate him on his new position and discuss the future of the U.S.-China relationship, the White House said in a release.
"The president underscored his firm commitment to increasing practical cooperation to address Asia's and the world's most pressing economic and security challenges," the readout said. "Both leaders agreed on the value of regular high-level engagement to expand cooperation and coordination."
Obama also discussed the threat from North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, stressing the need for coordination with China to ensure North Korea meets its denuclearization obligations, the readout said.
China, North Korea's largest remaining ally, condemned Pyongyang for its recent actions, including threats of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States and South Korea, announcing it nullified the Korean conflict cease-fire and its third underground nuclear test. China supported imposition of more sanctions against North Korea approved by the U.N. Security Council.
Obama also welcomed China's Group of 20 commitment to move toward a more flexible exchange rate, underscoring "the importance of working together to expand trade and investment opportunities and to address issues such as the protection of intellectual property rights," the readout said.
"In this context, the president highlighted the importance of addressing cybersecurity threats, which represent a shared challenge," the readout said. "The two leaders agreed to maintain frequent and direct communication."
Texas bills would nullify U.S. gun laws
AUSTIN, Texas, March 14 (UPI) -- Texas lawmakers are considering several proposals backers say would allow the state to ignore any new federal gun control laws.
Some bills would even make it illegal to enforce any new federal weapons measures, the San Antonio Express-News reported Wednesday.
Some proposals would exempt locally made firearms from federal gun laws, while others would jail Texas police officers who try to enforce such laws.
"The intent is to assert the sovereignty of Texas where constitutionally appropriate," said Brandon Creighton, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Federalism and Fiscal Responsibility, which considered the bills during a hearing.
"God has given us a basic right to bear arms," Aubrey Vaughan, pastor of the Beulah Land Baptist Church in Conroe told the committee.
Democrats have described the bills as extreme, but few people at the hearing spoke against the measures.
Creighton acknowledged the bills may not pass constitutional muster but he said "giving a voice to Texans to be heard on these issues -- that is important."
Census: Oil boom fuels Western growth
WASHINGTON, March 14 (UPI) -- Parts of the West are gaining population after years of decline thanks to the oil and gas boom, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday.
The Midland, Texas, metropolitan area, where population rose 4.6 percent in the year that ended July 1, 2012, was the fastest-growing in the country, analysts said. Williston, N.D., with a 9.3 percent increase in population, was the fastest-growing micropolitan area, a term defined by the bureau as having a population less than 50,000 and above 10,000.
"After a long period of out-migration, some parts of the Great Plains -- from just south of the Canadian border all the way down to West Texas -- are experiencing rapid population growth," said Thomas Mesenbourg, a senior adviser functioning as the bureau's director. "There are probably many factors fueling this growth on the prairie, but no doubt the energy boom is playing a role. For instance, the Permian Basin, located primarily in West Texas, and North Dakota accounted for almost half of the total U.S. growth in firms that mine or extract oil and gas, during a recent one-year period."
While parts of the south are growing, four southern counties had the biggest losses in population. Bradford in northern Florida lost 5 percent of its residents followed by Henry in southern Florida and Macon and Perry in Alabama.