VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis put his humility on display during his first day as pontiff Thursday, stopping by his hotel to pick up his luggage and pay the bill himself in a decidedly different style of papacy than his tradition-minded predecessor, who tended to stay ensconced in the frescoed halls of the Vatican.
The difference in style was a sign of Francis’ belief that the Catholic Church needs to be at one with the people it serves and not imposing its message on a society that often doesn’t want to hear it, Francis’ authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press.
“It seems to me for now what is certain is it’s a great change of style, which for us isn’t a small thing,” Rubin said, recalling how the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio would celebrate Masses with ex-prostitutes in Buenos Aires.
“He believes the church has to go to the streets,” he said, “to express this closeness of the church and this accompaniment with the people who suffer.”
Francis began his first day as pope making 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 elected him leader of the 1.2 billion-strong church in an unusually quick conclave.
Francis is expected to outline some of his priorities as pope in the homily. The Vatican said it would likely be delivered in Italian, another break from the traditional-minded Benedict whose first homily as pope was in Latin.
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.”
By Thursday morning, members of his flock were similarly charmed when Francis stopped by the Vatican-owned residence where he routinely stays during visits to Rome and where he stayed before the start of the conclave to pick up his luggage, pay the bill and greet staff.
“He wanted to come here because he wanted to thank the personnel, people who work in this house,” said The Rev. Pawel Rytel-Andrianek, who is staying at the residence. “He greeted them one by one, no rush, the whole staff, one by one.”
“People say that he never in these 20 years asked for a (Vatican) car,” he said. “Even when he went for the conclave with a priest from his diocese, he just walked out to the main road, he picked up a taxi and went to the conclave. So very simple for a future pope.”
Francis displayed that same sense of simplicity and humility 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.
“I think we’re going to see a call to Gospel simplicity,” said U.S. Cardinal Donald Wuerl. “He is by all accounts a very gentle but firm, very loving but fearless, a very pastoral and caring person ideal for the challenges today.”
During dinner, Francis, however, acknowledged the daunting nature of those challenges in a few words addressed to the cardinal electors: “‘May God forgive you for what you have done,’” Francis said, according to witnesses.
The Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi acknowledged the difference in style between the two popes, attributing it to Francis’ life work as the pastor of Buenos Aires whereas Benedict was long an academic. He said it was too early to make a “profound evaluation” of Francis’ priorities, urging instead reflection on his first few homilies — particularly at his installation Mass on Tuesday.
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. 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.
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 he did not announce his visit.”
He then also went into the main altar area of the basilica and prayed before relics of the manger in Bethlehem where Jesus is said to have been born — an important pilgrimage spot for Jesuits
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,” an authoritative 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 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 also inherits a Vatican bureaucracy in need of sore reform. The leaks of papal documents last year exposed the petty turf battles and allegations of corruption in the Holy See administration.
One of his most important and watched appointments will be that of his secretary of state, who effectively runs the Holy See. Lombardi said Francis, like his predecessors, would probably confirm all Vatican officials in their jobs for the time being, and make changes at a later date.