POPE Francis, barely 12 hours after his election, quietly left the Vatican early on Thursday to pray for guidance at a Rome basilica as he looks to usher a Catholic Church mired in intrigue and scandal into a new age of simplicity and humility.
Francis went to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, the oldest church in the world dedicated to the Madonna, where he prayed before a famous icon of the Madonna called 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 pope. “We were given 10 minutes’ advance notice that the pope was coming”.
The first South American pontiff and the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, Francis is also bishop of Rome.
In his first words on Wednesday night he made clear that he would take that part of his role seriously and made good on the promise by visiting one of the capital’s most important churches.
Later on Thursday he was to go to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, to meet Emeritus Pope Benedict, who last month became the first pontiff in 600 years to step down, saying he was too frail to tackle all the problems of the 1.2 billion-member Church.
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s election has broken Europe’s centuries-old grip on the papacy but he is also the first to take the name Francis, in honour of the 12th century 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 76-year-old Bergoglio would get the nod.
He looked as startled as everyone, hesitating a moment on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica before stepping out to greet the huge crowds gathered in the square below to catch a glimpse of the new pontiff.
“I ask a favour 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 basilica 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.