As he walked on to the stage of the Vatican’s vast Paul VI audience hall on Saturday, 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 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”.
“Ah, how I would like a church,” he said, “that is poor and is for the poor.”
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 Friday — once again proved his penchant for improvisation as he cracked jokes and recounted the anecdote in the Sistine chapel. GNS