VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis, barely 12 hours after his election, quietly left the Vatican early on Thursday to pray for guidance as he looks to usher a Roman Catholic Church mired in intrigue and scandal into a new age of simplicity and humility.
Francis, the Argentinian cardinal who has become the first pope born outside Europe in 1,300 years, went to Rome’s 5th-century Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore; there he prayed before a famed icon of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which is known as the Salus Populi Romani, or Protectress of the Roman People.
“He spoke to us cordially, like a father,” said Father Ludovico Melo, a priest who prayed with the new pontiff. “We were given 10 minutes’ advance notice that the pope was coming.”
The first leader of the church to come from the Americas, home to nearly half the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Francis also takes the title of bishop of Rome.
In his first words to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square on Wednesday evening he made clear that he would take that part of his role seriously and made good on the promise by visiting one of the Italian capital’s most important churches.
From there, he asked the driver to go to a Rome residence for priests so that he could pick up bags he left there before he moved to a guesthouse inside the Vatican for the electoral conclave – a wry reminder that he did not expect to become pope.
Later on Thursday he was to go to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, to pay meet Emeritus Pope Benedict, who last month became the first pontiff in 600 years to step down, saying that at 85 he was too frail to tackle all the problems of the Church. Francis is, at 76, older than many other contenders for the papacy.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s election has broken Europe’s centuries-old grip on the papacy; he is also the first to take the name Francis, in honor of the 12th-century Italian saint from Assisi who spurned wealth to pursue a life of poverty.
His elevation on the second day of a closed-door conclave of cardinals came as a surprise, with many Vatican watchers expecting a longer deliberation, and none predicting the conservative Argentinian would get the nod.
The 266th pontiff in the Church’s 2,000-year history, Francis is taking the helm at a time of great crisis.
Morale among the faithful has been hit by a widespread child sex abuse scandal and in-fighting in the Vatican bureaucracy, which many in the Church say needs radical reform.
A cartoon in Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper showed the new pope telling the crowd on Wednesday about his surprise at being elected and then, pointing to aides, he says: “But that’s nothing compared to the surprises in store for them.”
When he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, he looked as startled as anyone, hesitating a moment before stepping out to greet the huge crowds gathered in the square below to catch a glimpse of the new pontiff.
“I ask a favor of you … pray for me,” he urged the cheering crowds, telling them the 114 other cardinal-electors “went almost to the end of the world” to find a new leader.
“Good night and have a good rest,” Bergoglio said before disappearing back into the opulent surroundings of the Vatican City – a far cry from his simple apartment in Buenos Aires.
“Yesterday he transmitted such humility, love and brotherhood,” said a woman outside the Roman church he visited on Thursday morning.
On Wednesday night, delighted priests, nuns and pilgrims danced around the obelisk in the middle of St. Peter’s Square, chanting: “Long Live the Pope” and “Argentina, Argentina”.
In his native Argentina, jubilant Catholics poured into their local churches to celebrate.
“I hope he changes all the luxury that exists in the Vatican, that he steers the Church in a more humble direction, something closer to the gospel,” said Jorge Andres Lobato, a 73-year-old retired state prosecutor.