Pope Francis receives a gift -- a glass to drink the traditional South America beverage "mate" -- Saturday during a meeting with the media at the Vatican.(Photo: Alessandra Tarantino, AP)
Marco della Cava, USA TODAY
ROME - The magnetic "Pope Francis Show" continued Saturday, as the newly minted pontiff met with thousands of reporters in a modernist media center flanking St. Peter's Basilica.
Although the former cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio displayed a growing ease with his lofty post, it was evident he had no intention of shedding his populist manner. At one point he broke from script, looked up and smiled.
"You have been working hard, eh?" Francis said in flawless Italian with a noticeable Piedmontese accent. The delighted reaction was immediate.
Laughs and applause in fact interrupted much of the half-hour audience, the bulk of which was taken up by prominent Vatican-affiliated reporters queuing up in a reception line. Many bowed and kissed the pope's ring; all were met with smiles and some with hugs.
When Pope Francis left, the applause and popping flashbulbs brought to mind a glitzy Hollywood event.
The new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics shares such charismatic traits not with his recently resigned predecessor, the theologian Benedict, but with the late John Paul II.
"(Pope Francis) has a genuine warmth to him that is very compelling, very attractive. Pope Benedict was very straight forward, even cold or academic. It's a huge contrast," said Eric Reguly, Rome correspondent for the Toronto Globe & Mail. "It's the first time I ever heard a pope cracking jokes. Even John Paul, who had a connection with people, didn't show a sense of humor like this. I think this is something the Vatican needs right now."
But while John Paul once was photographed greeting Italian crowds from the back of a red Ferrari convertible, Pope Francis on Saturday made it clear he wants to lead the church down grittier roads.
"I'd like a poor church, for the poor," Francis said, after explaining to the assembled media - the Vatican credentialed some 5,000 reporters from 81 countries - how he had come to settle on a papal name honoring St. Francis of Assisi, a rich man who gave away everything to work with the poor and animals.
"Let me tell you a story," he said softly. "During the election, when things became dangerously close (to Bergoglio's selection), a few archbishops who sat next to me comforted me.
"Then, when the (conclave) vote reached two-thirds, they hugged me and one said, 'Don't forget the poor.' That entered my head. The poor. I thought of Saint Francis of Assisi. That's when it entered my heart."
The pope revealed that some of his fellow cardinal-electors suggested other names, including Pope Adriano, after a reformer pontiff, and Pope Clement. But by then he'd already settled on his choice.
"I think the man we saw here was a pastor. That is his style ... it's like a breeze of fresh air. It's still too early to tell how effective he will be. But people connect with him," said Paolo Rodari of La Repubblica.
Although Francis has a global flock, here at the Vatican anything Italian tends to go over well. So both the selection of a name honoring one of their own saints as well as a last name that results from having Italian parents who immigrated to Argentina has helped make Francis - the first Jesuit and first Latin American pontiff - as Italian as a non-Italian pope can be.
Outside in St. Peter's Square, a sizable crowd stood under a brilliant blue sky - the first sun after weeks of rain - to watch the event on four giant TV screens.
A much larger gathering is expected here Sunday, when Francis will conduct his first public Angelus, or prayer, from his still-under-refurbishment apartment adjacent to St. Peter's Basilica.
On Tuesday, there is yet another Mass, a formal installation ceremony that will be attended by world dignitaries including Vice President Biden, who is Catholic.
After that, the pontificate of Pope Francis will officially get underway, as clergy, laity and media all watch to see how the new heir to the throne of St. Peter will tackle vexing problems ranging from Vatican financial scandals to controversial social issues.
"What I want to see is how he will reform the Vatican bureaucracy because it needs very badly to be cleaned up," said Bernard Warner, a Rome-based journalist for Bloomberg/Businessweek. "I hope he will be effective, but it will be an enormous challenge."
Contributing: Eric J. Lyman