March 16, 2013 in Nation/World

Francis turns on charm in first meeting with press

Nicole Winfield Associated Press
 
Michael Sohn photo

Pope Francis gestures during a meeting with the media at the Pope VI hall, at the Vatican, Saturday, March 16, 2013.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis offered intimate insights Saturday into the moments after his election, telling journalists that he was immediately inspired to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi because of his work for peace and the poor — and was embraced by another cardinal amid applause inside the conclave.

“Let me tell you a story,” Francis said in a break from his prepared text during a special gathering for thousands of journalists, media workers and guests in the Vatican’s auditorium.

Francis then described how he was comforted by his friend, Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, as it appeared the voting was going his way and it seemed “a bit dangerous” that he would reach the two-thirds necessary to be elected.

When the threshold was reached, applause erupted in the frescoed Sistine Chapel.

“He (Hummes) hugged me. He kissed me. He said don’t forget about the poor,” Francis recalled. “And that’s how in my heart came the name Francis of Assisi,” who devoted his life to the poor, missionary outreach and caring for God’s creation.

He said some have wondered whether his name was a reference to other Francis figures, including St. Frances de Sales or even one of the first seven Jesuits, Francis Xavier.

But he said he was inspired immediately after the election when he thought about wars. St. Francis of Assisi, the pope said, was “the man of the poor. The man of peace. The man who loved and cared for creation — and in this moment we don’t have such a great relationship with creation. The man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man.”

“Oh how I would like a poor church and a church for the poor,” Francis said, sighing.

He then joked that some other cardinals suggested other names: Hadrian VI, after a great church reformer — a reference to the need for the pope to clean up the Vatican’s messy bureaucracy. Someone else suggested Clement XV, to counter Clement XIV, who suppressed the Jesuit order in 1773.

The gathering in the Vatican begins a busy week for the pontiff that includes his installation Mass on Tuesday.

Among the talks, the Vatican said Saturday, will be a session with the president of Francis’ homeland Argentina on Monday. The pope has sharply criticized Christina Fernandez over her support for liberal measures such as gay marriage and free contraceptives.

But the most closely watched appointment will be Francis’ journey next Saturday to the hills south of Rome at the papal retreat at Castel Gandolfo for lunch with Benedict XVI, a historic encounter that brings together the new pope and the first pope to resign in six centuries, which set in motion the stunning papal transition.

The Saturday meeting between the two will be private, but every comment and gesture on the sidelines will be scrutinized for hints of how the unprecedented relationship will take shape between the emeritus pontiff and his successor.

Benedict has been out of the public eye since officially leaving the papacy on Feb. 28 and the Vatican dismissed any suggestion that the former pope helped shaped the discussions inside the secret gathering of cardinals that selected Buenos Aires Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio on Wednesday as the first pontiff from Latin America. Vatican officials said there was no contact between the papal electors and Benedict before the conclave.

Benedict has promised to remain outside church affairs and dedicate himself to prayer and meditation. Pope Francis, however, has shown no reluctance to invoke Benedict’s legacy and memory, in both an acknowledgment of the unusual dimensions of his papacy and also a message that he is comfortable with the situation and is now fully in charge.

World leaders and senior international envoys, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, are expected on Tuesday for the formal installation of Pope Francis. It offers the new pope his first opportunities to flex his diplomatic skills as head of the Vatican City State.

But the most potentially sensitive talks could come with Fernandez after years of open tensions over the then-archbishop’s strong opposition to initiatives that led Argentina to become Latin American country to legalize gay marriage. He also opposed — but failed to stop — Fernandez from promoting free contraception and artificial insemination.

Also Saturday, the pope confirmed all the current Vatican officials in their jobs “for the time being,” the Vatican said, noting that he will take time before deciding to make changes in the church administration, which has been tarnished by leaked documents that raise questions about financial transparency and possible attempts to protect scandal-tainted clerics.

During his audience with journalists Saturday, Francis poured on the charm, thanking journalists for their work covering the election — “and you have worked, eh?” he said chuckling. He urged them to view the church not as a political entity but as a “dramatically spiritual” human institution and learn its true nature “with its virtues and its sins.”

“The church exists to communicate this: truth, goodness and beauty personified. We are all called not to communicate ourselves, but this essential trio.”

In a recognition that not all journalists in the room were Christian or even believers, he offered a blessing without the traditional Catholic formula or gesture, saying merely that what was important was one’s conscience and knowing that “each one of you is a child of God.”

Afterwards, Francis met with some of the senior Vatican communications officials as well as a handful of journalists, including one who offered him a mate gourd, the small cup with straw that holds the traditional Argentine herbal tea that Francis loves. Those who knew him embraced him warmly.

“Simple, simpatico and very direct,” is how Iacopo Scaramuzzi, the Vatican correspondent for the Italian news agency TMNews, described his brief greeting with the pope.

Alessandro Forlani, a visually impaired journalist for Italian RAI radio, approached the pope with his seeing eye dog Asia.

“He has a special relationship with creation in the spirit of Saint Francis,” Forlani said afterward. “I asked for a blessing for my wife and daughter at home. He added ‘a blessing for the dog too’ and bent down to bless it.”

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Daniela Petroff contributed.

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Follow Nicole Winfield at www.twitter.com/nwinfield

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