VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis put his humility on display during his first day as pontiff Thursday, stopping by his hotel to pick up his luggage and praying like a pilgrim before a beloved shrine in a decidedly different style for the papacy usually ensconced inside the frescoed halls of the Vatican.
The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, made an early morning visit in a simple Vatican car to a Roman basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary and prayed before an icon of the Madonna.
He had told a crowd of some 100,000 people packed in rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square just after his election that he intended to pray to the Madonna “that she may watch over all of Rome.”
He also told cardinals he would call on retired Pope Benedict XVI, but the Vatican said the visit wouldn’t take place for a few days.
The main item on Francis’ agenda Thursday was an inaugural afternoon Mass in the Sistine Chapel, where cardinals on Wednesday elected him leader of the 1.2 billion-strong church in an unusually quick conclave. Francis might be expected to outline some of his priorities as pope in the homily.
Francis, the first Jesuit pope and first non-European since the Middle Ages, decided to call himself Francis after St. Francis of Assisi, the humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor.
The new pope, known for his work with the poor in Buenos Aires’ slums, immediately charmed the crowd in St. Peter’s, which roared when his name was announced and roared again when he emerged on the loggia of the basilica with a simple and familiar: “Brothers and sisters, good evening.”
Waving shyly, he said the cardinals’ job was to find a bishop of Rome. “It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth, but here we are. Thank you for the welcome.”
The 76-year-old Bergoglio, said to have finished second when Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, was chosen on just the fifth ballot to replace the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.
Francis urged the crowd to pray for Benedict and immediately after his election spoke by phone with the retired pope, who has been living at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo south of Rome. A visit to Benedict would be significant because Benedict’s resignation has raised concerns about potential power conflicts emerging from the peculiar situation of having a reigning pope and a retired one.
Benedict’s longtime aide, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, accompanied Francis to the visit Thursday morning at St. Mary Major, the ANSA news agency reported. In addition to being Benedict’s secretary, Gaenswein is also the prefect of the papal household and will be arranging the new pope’s schedule.
After the visit, Francis also stopped by a Vatican-owned residence in downtown Rome to pick up the luggage that he left behind before moving into the Vatican hotel for the conclave, according to witnesses. News reports said he was driven in a simple car — not the papal car — and asked if he needed to pay the bill.
It was a remarkable show of simplicity and humility for a man who could easily have dispatched someone to do the job for him.
He displayed that same sense immediately after his election, shunning the special sedan that was to transport him to the hotel so he could ride on the bus with other cardinals, and refusing even an elevated platform from which he would greet them, according to U.S. Cardinal Timothy Dolan.
“He met with us on our own level,” Dolan said.
Like many Latin American Catholics, Francis has a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary, and his visit to the basilica was a reflection of that. He prayed before a Byzantine icon of Mary and the infant Jesus, the Protectress of the Roman People.
“He had a great devotion to this icon of Mary and every time he comes from Argentina he visits this basilica,” said one of the priests at the basilica, the Rev. Elio Montenero. “We were surprised today because did not announce his visit.”
Francis’ election elated Latin America, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics which has nevertheless long been underrepresented in the church leadership. On Wednesday, drivers honked their horns in the streets of Buenos Aires and television announcers screamed with elation at the news.
Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, said the cardinals clearly chose Francis because he was simply “the best person to lead the church.”
“I can’t speak for all the cardinals but I think you see what a wonderful pope he is,” he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “He’s just a very loving, wonderful guy. We just came to appreciate the tremendous gifts he has. He’s much beloved in his diocese in Argentina. He has a great pastoral history of serving people.”
The new pontiff brings a common touch. The son of middle-class Italian immigrants, he denied himself the luxuries that previous cardinals in Buenos Aires enjoyed. He lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited slums that ring Argentina’s capital.
“If he brings that same desire for a simple lifestyle to the papal court, I think they are all going to be in shock,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican,” a must-read book on the Vatican bureaucracy. “This may not be a man who wants to wear silk and furs.”
Francis considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
“As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years — that in each other, we see the face of God,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.
As the 266th pope, Francis inherits a Catholic church in turmoil, beset by the clerical sex abuse scandal, internal divisions and dwindling numbers in parts of the world where Christianity had been strong for centuries.
While Latin America is still very Catholic, it has faced competition from aggressive evangelical churches that have chipped away at strongholds like Brazil, where the number of Catholics has dropped from 74 percent of the population in 2000 to 65 percent today. Like Europe, secularism has also taken hold: more and more people simply no longer identify themselves with any organized religion.
Francis is sure to bring the church closer to the poverty-wracked region, while also introducing the world to a very different type of pope. Reversing the typical order of blessings, he asked the crowd to bow their heads.
“I want you to bless me,” Francis said.