New Pope wants church for poor

By Lizzy Davies

Cracking jokes and ad-libbing, the Pontiff tells media why he chose to name himself after St Francis of Assisi.

Pope Francis smiles during his message to journalists. He is wearing black shoes rather than papal red ones. Photo / AP
Pope Francis smiles during his message to journalists. He is wearing black shoes rather than papal red ones. Photo / AP

As he walked on to the stage of the Vatican's vast Paul VI audience hall, Pope Francis was still wearing the white cassock, plain crucifix and black shoes that have characterised his fledgling papacy's pared-down aesthetic.

In his first encounter with the thousands of weary journalists who have been covering the Vatican in recent action-packed weeks, the first Latin American and Jesuit Pontiff endeared himself to them by expressing gratitude for their labours. "You've been working, eh?" he chuckled, in the informal style that is fast becoming his trademark.

But some of the loudest applause from the audience was reserved for when the man of simple habits explained why he had chosen to name himself after St Francis of Assisi, the saint who devoted his life to peace and the poor.

In conclave, the Argentinian said, when the votes were being counted and things seemed to be becoming, in his own words, a bit dangerous, the cardinal sitting next to him, an old friend from Brazil, embraced him and said: "Don't forget the poor."

In a clear signal of his desire to reset the priorities of the embattled Catholic church after Benedict XVI's intellectual, remote-seeming reign, Francis added that the reminder had made him think of St Francis - a man "who wanted a poor church".

He said: "Ah, how I would like a church that is poor and is for the poor."

Juan Camilo, a 23-year-old Colombian in the audience, was impressed. "I liked most of all this part, because it is a sign of transformation of the change towards the poor," he said.

"And surely it will be a sign of an improvement of the relationship between the church and its hierarchy and the people. Because [in recent years] the church hasn't been so open to the people."

Looking relaxed and settled in his new role, Francis, 76 - who delivered his inaugural homily off the cuff and veered from his notes during an address to cardinals on Saturday - again proved his penchant for improvisation as he cracked jokes and recounted the anecdote in the Sistine chapel.

While he had decided on the name Francis, he explained with a grin, other cardinals had their own suggestions, including Clement XV as a way of getting back at Clement XIV, who had suppressed the Jesuits. And, in an allusion to the desire for reform with which many cardinals entered conclave after years of scandals and controversies, he said that another had proposed that Jorge Bergoglio name himself after Adrian VI, the 218th Pontiff who sought to reform the church and crack down on abuses of power and corruption.

The meeting with the media - 5600 of whom had been accredited to cover the transition between Benedict's resignation and Francis' election - had been applauded when first announced by spokesman Federico Lombardi. In the end, as with Benedict's own parallel audience in April 2005, the interaction between Pontiff and press was strictly one way. "It is not a press conference," the Vatican clarified.

In a brief but warm message to journalists, Francis chose not to repeat a colourfully worded claim made last year in which he accused them of focusing on and exaggerating the negative sides of the Vatican. He did, however, urge them to "always try to better understand the true nature of the church and even its journey in the world, with its virtues and with its sins".

Afterwards a string of journalists and communications helpers lined up to be greeted personally by the Pope - some embracing him.

The coming days are looking busy for Francis. Today he was to deliver his first angelus. Tomorrow he will meet the Argentinian President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whom he has taken to task for her pioneering moves to make the Pope's home country the first in Latin America to legalise gay marriage.

In an inauguration Mass celebrated by dignitaries from all over the world, Francis will be officially made pope tomorrow night.

Leading the Anglican delegation will be the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is unable to attend as he is on a prayer pilgrimage in preparation for his own enthronement on Friday. The Queen will be represented by the Duke of Gloucester.

Of all his future engagements, however, the one that particularly stands out is his historic meeting, planned for Sunday, with his predecessor at Castel Gandolfo.


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