Pope Francis ventured outside the Vatican’s walls to pray at a Roman basilica and pay his hotel bill the day after becoming the first Roman Catholic leader to hail from outside Europe in more than 1,200 years.
Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, offered prayers to Mary, the mother of Jesus, during a morning visit to St. Mary Major in Rome’s historic center. The church must offer “mercy, mercy, mercy” for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, he told priests at the basilica, Father Ludovico Melo said in a Sky TG24 interview.
On his return to the Vatican, Francis stopped off at the clerical residence where he’d stayed during the conclave to pick up his bags, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said at a press briefing. “He then paid his bill to set a good example” at the lodgings on Rome’s Via della Scrofa, he said.
Francis’s election, a surprise choice that reflects the church’s shifting demographics, comes as the Vatican struggles to emerge from an era of scandal and intrigue. Bergoglio’s seen as a Roman outsider after a papal vote depicted by analysts as a struggle between mostly Italian cardinals seeking to preserve the status quo of the Vatican government known as the Curia and others looking to shake it up amid reports of mismanagement and alleged corruption.
“The conclave went for a man who’s very deeply holy, not in an ethereal, eccentric way, but being simple and humble,” Christopher Ruddy, professor of history and theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington, said in a telephone interview. “This will be a shake-up.”
Bergoglio, 76, chose the name of Pope Francis after the 13th-century Italian saint from Assisi famous for his pledge of poverty and humility. Last night, he was greeted by thousands of cheering faithful as he stepped out on a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square to be presented for the first time as pope.
“You know that the duty of a conclave is to give a bishop to Rome, but it seems that my brother cardinals went to the end of the world to find one,” he told a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 who braved a cold rain to greet the new pontiff.
Slideshow: Francis's Procession From Cardinal to Pope
Francis also asked them to pray for him “before I offer a blessing to you.” He’s the first pope ever from the Americas and the first non-European since the death of Syrian Gregory III in 741. He was elected on the fifth ballot on the conclave’s second day.
Francis has spoken by phone with Benedict XVI, his retired predecessor, and they will meet soon though it’s unclear when, Lombardi said. Benedict, who became the first pope in 600 years to abdicate on Feb. 28, is staying at the papal summer palace south of Rome and will return to the Vatican in two months to see out his days in a convent.
Of Italian descent, Francis inherits from his German predecessor a church that’s been rocked by sex-abuse scandals amid a waning profile in an increasingly secular West. His main challenge is to restore the reputation of the millennia-old institution and attract believers to a faith outstripped by Islam in terms of global numbers.
He’s the first pope to come from the Jesuits, the Society of Jesus. The order, founded in the 16th century, breathed new energy into the church after the Protestant Reformation and is famous for its demanding educational and spiritual requirements.
Vatican spokesman Lombardi expressed “shock” that a fellow Jesuit was elected. “Jesuits think of themselves as servants, not authorities,” he reiterated today.
In another move without precedent, Bergoglio adopted the name of Francis after one of the church’s most-revered saints, Francis of Assisi, who embraced poverty in 13th-century Italy and is a symbol of humility. Lombardi confirmed today the new pope didn’t take his name after St. Francis Xavier of Spain, one of the greatest Jesuit saints and patron of missions.
After the secret conclave, the new pope refused to board a papal sedan, instead taking a mini-bus with the cardinals, Lombardi said. “May God forgive you for what you’ve done,” Francis later told them during dinner, according to Lombardi.
“Pope Francis is well known as a compassionate pastor of real stature who has served the poor in Latin America, and whose simplicity and holiness of life is remarkable,” Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, said in a statement. “His choice of the name Francis suggests that he wants to call us all back to the transformation that St. Francis knew and brought to the whole of Europe, fired by contemplation and closeness to God.”
Bergoglio had part of a lung removed after suffering from an illness when he was about 21, and since then has remained in good health, Lombardi said today.
Before Easter in 1999, about a year after being named archbishop, he washed the feet of 12 AIDS patients in a Buenos Aires hospital and the next year washed the feet of 12 prison inmates. Bergoglio’s done the same thing every year since, with members of different social groupings.
The name Francis “signifies his papacy will have a great devotion to justice, peace and to the poor,” said Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA, a group that works on financial reforms for the poor. “Here’s a guy who’s taken the life of St. Francis seriously” and “gave up his mansion and driver and lives in an apartment in Buenos Aires.”
Still, the new pope has also faced criticism in his homeland for allegedly not condemning strongly enough murders committed by Argentina’s military dictatorship more than 30 years ago. He later sought public forgiveness for the church’s inaction, according to the Associated Press.
Bergoglio reportedly came close to becoming pope during the last conclave in 2005. He got the second-highest vote total before bowing out of the running as Benedict was elected, Italian newswire Ansa said yesterday.
Bergoglio was seen as a long shot, with 25-to-1 odds of becoming pope, according to betting company William Hill Plc. (WMH)
“To say that this result is a shock, however, is an understatement,” William Hill spokesman Joe Crilly said in an e-mailed comment. “This is a market that has really grabbed the attention of punters around the globe and we saw five different favorites in the short time since Pope Benedict XVI stepped down.”
Bergoglio’s election came after the Vatican was hit last year with the papal leaks scandal. Paolo Gabriele, Benedict’s former butler, was sentenced by a Vatican court to 18 months in prison for stealing his documents. Gabriele passed them on to an Italian journalist who wrote a book that depicted a web of Curia intrigue undermining Benedict’s efforts to improve the Holy See’s financial transparency and crack down on sex abuse.
Cardinals in pre-conclave talks last week discussed how to improve the work of the Curia in light of the so-called Vatileaks affair, Lombardi has said.
Benedict ordered an internal probe of the case and was handed a dossier last December by investigators. The report detailed alleged corruption and sexual misconduct by prelates that left them vulnerable to blackmail and was a key reason Benedict decided to resign, Repubblica and Italian magazine Panorama said last month in unsourced reports that the Vatican dismissed as fantasy.
The dossier “made it possible to detect, given the limitations and imperfections of the human factor in every institution, the generosity and dedication of those who work with uprightness and generosity in the Holy See,” the Vatican said in a statement last month.
Gabriele, later pardoned by Benedict, had indicated that he leaked the documents to protect the pope and expose “evil and corruption” in the Vatican.
David Clohessy of SNAP, a U.S. group that advocates for victims of priestly sex abuse, said he’s “grateful” Bergoglio doesn’t work in the Curia, according to e-mailed remarks. “We hope that will give him the courage to shake things up and put prevention of abuse and cover-up first on his priority list.”
The new pope will meet with all cardinals tomorrow at the Vatican and with journalists the next day. On March 17, he’ll hold his first angelus offering a prayer to faithful from his window over St. Peter’s Square. His inauguration mass will be on March 19, the Vatican said.
Bergoglio’s had a strained relationship with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. After Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriages in 2010, Bergoglio helped organized marches to derail the government-backed proposal, saying it wasn’t “just a political question but intended to destroy God’s plan.”
In a speech outside Buenos Aires last night, Fernandez urged the new pope to deliver a message to the “world’s powers, those that have weapons and financial power, so they can turn their attention to their own societies” and seek peace through dialog.
“His theology is relatively conservative as they all are, but his stance on social justice is really progressive,” Dean Chester Gillis, professor of theology at Georgetown University, a Jesuit school in Washington, D.C., told Bloomberg Television. “He has been a champion of social justice in Latin America, so I think that is a happy combination for the church.”
One of five children, Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires. His father was an Italian immigrant who worked on the railways. Bergoglio trained as a chemist before being ordained a priest in 1969. He taught theology, philosophy and psychology in Buenos Aires before becoming a bishop in 1992. He’s written at least three books on religion. Bergoglio is a fan of the Buenos Aires soccer team San Lorenzo, which was founded by a priest.
Diego Maradona, the soccer star whose “hand-of-God” goal over England helped lead Argentina to the 1986 World Cup title, said “the ‘hand of God’ has brought us an Argentinian pope,” according to a letter he wrote published today in Rome daily Il Messaggero.
Almost half the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America and their numbers have increased by more than 50 percent in the past 30 years, compared with growth of 39 percent in the U.S. and 4.9 percent in Europe, according to Vatican statistics compiled by Bloomberg.
St. Francis, the medieval Italian saint famous for his love of animals, “gave so many beautiful things, the gift of poverty in particular was his main thought,” Nicolas Nunez, 26, a Mexican seminarian, said in St. Peter’s Square. “In a world where we have many things we don’t need, I see that as a signal to return to Christ who is our real richness.”
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