ROME – Generally speaking, when a pope presides over a big event in St. Peter’s Square, he’s the unquestioned star of the show. Not so this Sunday, however, when Pope Francis was upstaged by another luminary, famed Italian actor and comedian Roberto Benigni, who not only offered to dance a tango for the Argentine pontiff, but also to run for the papacy together with Francis himself.

Benigni, 71, is best-known to American audiences for his Oscar-winning 1997 film “Life is Beautiful.” In Italy he’s a cultural institution, and had been invited by organizers of the Vatican’s first-ever World Children’s Day to deliver a reflection during the closing Mass Sunday morning, celebrated in St. Peter’s Square in front of thousands of children from around the world.

Benigni is a legendarily irrepressible, spontaneous figure, and he certainly didn’t disappoint on Sunday, delivering what quickly became labeled the “Benigni-Show” in the Italian media.

He began with an affectionate salute for Pope Francis.

“Your Holiness! You’re here, within reach and with heart, and I want to hug you, to kiss you … I don’t know how to demonstrate my affection, I could dance a tango here in front of you,” Benigni joked.

“Before I came in, two Swiss Guards told me I could do anything I wanted, but I just can’t touch the pope. But as they said it, that’s all I wanted to do,” he said. “But I can give you a kiss, because what’s the point of kisses if you don’t give them? It’s a kiss from everyone here, it’s worth 100,000,” he said, and then proceeded to walk up to a beaming Francis and plant a kiss on his cheek.

Afterwards, Benigni proclaimed himself “as full of joy as a watermelon.”

The comedian then noted that Sunday’s event took place in the Vatican, “the smallest state in the world with the biggest man in the world.”

“I have to say that here in the Vatican City State, I feel comfortable,” Benigni said. “You know how everybody asks little kids what they want to be when they group up, and they usually say an astronaut, or a soccer player, or a singer. When I was little, I seriously responded: ‘The pope.’ Everybody laughed, they roared, so I decided to become a comic. If they’d knelt down, I might have been the pope! It would have been a dangerous thing, can you imagine?”

Benigni offered the pope a deal, almost a conclave pact.

“Maybe at the next elections, Holiness, I’ll run too! When are the next elections? But not after you!” Benigni exclaimed. “No, together with you. Let’s make a big camp, let’s put on the ballot: ‘Jorge Mario Bergoglio, called Francis.’ We’d win immediately, it’s a great idea.”

(For the record, the Italian phrase campo largo, “large camp,” has been prominent in the country’s political chatter in recent months amid speculation that the center-left Democratic Party and the left-wing populist Five Star Movement might combine forces ahead of the June 6-9 European elections.)

Benigni then told a story intended to demonstrate the pope’s affection for children.

“One time I went to Mass in a church in Rome, and while the pope gave the homily there were babies who were making a racket and their parents were trying to quiet them down. Francis said, ‘Leave them alone, the voice of a baby in church is more important than that of a priest, a bishop or a pope’.”

“It’s true, he said it,” Benigni insisted. “I can’t tell lies in front of the pope!”

Benigni also described Pope Francis as eternally young, saying he’s actually only three years old but with “lots and lots of days.”

“He has a light around him, like Peter Pan’s little bell, like fairy dust, or maybe pope’s dust, anyway it’s all incandescent,” he said.

Benigni then dispensed some encouragement to the children present in the square.

“Maybe among you is a new Michelangelo, a new Galileo, a scientist like Rita Levi Montalcini who will win the Nobel Prize,” he said. An Italian neurologist, the late Levi Montalcini won the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine.

“Maybe there’s a pope here, or two or three … who wants to be the pope?” Benigni asked, as scores of hands went up and shouts were heard around the square.

“There’s twenty of them, Holiness, you’re going to have to expand the Vatican,” Benigni joked. “Anything’s possible … maybe there’s the first African pope, or Asian, or maybe even from a working class neighborhood of Rome, a pope from Testaccio, or even a little girl, a woman, the first woman pope in history!” he exclaimed, drawing laughs even from assembled clergy and bishops.

Benigni at last turned semi-serious, offering some advice to his young audience.

“Take flight, take your life in your own hands and make it a masterpiece,” Benigni said. “Build a better world.”

“It’s easier than you think,” he said. “The world wants to be beautiful, it needs it. Make it so, because every one of you can do it, can make your own small but concrete contribution towards good or evil. Seek to make things beautiful, to make others happy.”

“Don’t try to make other people better, because there’s only person who can make them better, and that’s themselves.” Benigni said. “Others have to make themselves happy.”

“The world might not always be a place you like,” Benigni said. “Don’t be afraid, though. Throw yourself into life, plunge into the waters of life and spread your wings as you’re falling.”

“Learn as many words as you can,” the famously voluble Benigni also advised. “As you’re growing up, you don’t have the words to express what you’re feeling, what’s in your growing soul, you’ll feel bad.”

Inevitably, Bengini also touched on the theme of war and its impact on children.

“Very often the world is run by people who don’t know what mercy and love are, and who commit the gravest and stupidest of sins: War,” he said. “We should put an end to it.”

Benigni encouraged policy-makers to learn from children.

“When children play war, the moment one of them gets hurt, they stop,” he said. “It’s the end of the game. Why don’t those who make wars stop at the first child who gets hurt?”

“We have to find the right words, the true words,” he said. “No one yet has found the magic word for ending war, like ‘Open Sesame.’ But look, kids, the word is there. I’m sure that among you is the only who will find the right word for ending war forever. One of you has to find it, we have to look together, in every language.”

“You will find it, we only have to help you look,” Benigni said. “We have to love you, we have to write stories for you, above all stories that make you laugh. There’s nothing more beautiful in the world than the laugh of a child. One day, if all the children of the world can laugh together, that will be a beautiful day.”

Benigni closed on a semi-serious note.

“Here’s what life is: Love, awareness, and an infinite compassion for the pain that humanity feels,” he said.

“Don’t wait for the world to take care of you,” he said to the children. “You take care of the world.”