At his first public Mass in San Diego as a cardinal, Robert McElroy recounted the life of Englishman John Merrick, aka the “Elephant Man.”

He told how Merrick was treated inhumanly because of his severe deformities, and how the kindness and caring of a surgeon transformed his life.

His message to students at the University of San Diego was the importance of improving — through benevolence and courtesy — the lives of classmates and others in their daily interactions.

Classes began last week, and hundreds of students, faculty and staff were welcomed at the Mass during the lunch hour. Students took part in the procession at the Immaculata Catholic Church on campus.

McElroy recently returned from the Vatican in Rome, where he was elevated to cardinal by Pope Francis on August 27.

The Mass of the Holy Spirit is a long-standing tradition at Catholic colleges and universities, said Michael Lovette-Colyer, USD vice president of mission integration.

“Catholic institutions of education have been celebrating these Masses since the Middle Ages,” he told worshipers. “Today, we continue a tradition that stretches back 500 years.”

The Mass is intended for students, faculty and staff to “recognize the presence of God in the world, in one another and in the subject matter we deal with,” said Lovette-Colyer.

James T. Harris III, president of USD, addressed McElroy at the end of Mass.

He hailed the new cardinal for “your great concern for caring for our common home for migrants, refugees, asylum seekers, and our homeless neighbors, as well as your work in creating a more open and inclusive church aligned with the vision and priorities of Pope Francis.”

Harris also praised McElroy for his “intellectual and pastoral abilities, your humility prayerfulness and your good sense of humor.”

“Without doubt, this is a very exciting development for your diocese and for our universities,” he said. “And all of us at USD are incredibly happy for you and extremely proud.”

Before Mass, the new cardinal said his most memorable moments in Rome were receiving his red hat and ring from the pope, and celebrating with family and parishioners later.

McElroy recalled that Francis shared moments of encouragement with him during the consistory and asked how his heart health was. McElroy had heart surgery last November.

The cardinal told him that his heart was fine but knees are giving him trouble. Francis commiserated that he shares the same affliction.

Recently, when asked why the pope chose him, McElroy told the Union-Tribune: “Pope Francis has initiated a renewal of the life of the church that centers on synodality, which means the church is inclusive and participative. We have tried to plant the seeds of those priorities in the diocese in the last seven years. I think that is a reason I was chosen.”