VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Saturday went before several thousand journalists, charming his audience with a joke or two, revealing his private thoughts during his election and even blessing someone’s guide dog.
In a custom that dates at least to John Paul II, one of the pope’s first public appearances was a meeting in the modern Paul VI Hall with an estimated 5,000 reporters based in Rome or here to cover the week’s historic events.
Francis sat on the stage in a large but relatively simple chair and read a speech that thanked the journalists for their work during this “intense period” that had focused the world’s eyes on the Roman Catholic Church.
Then, departing from his text, he offered to tell the story of how he chose his name, and in so doing provided a rare glimpse of the inner workings of the conclave, the secret vote by cardinals to select a new pontiff. He is the first Pope Francis, and many have wondered which Francis was his inspiration.
The balloting in the Sistine Chapel was clearly going his way when Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the retired archbishop of Sao Paulo, Brazil, his “dear friend,” embraced him and told him not to forget the poor. The still-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina sat reflecting, as the ballots were being counted, and then it came to him: St. Francis of Assisi.
“The name came to my heart,” Francis said. “The man of poverty, the man of peace … who wanted a poor church for the poor.”
He said another cardinal quipped that he ought to be named Clement, a cheeky proposal given that the last Clement, the 18th century Clement XIV, is remembered for having suppressed the Jesuits, the order to which Francis belongs.
“Why?” Francis recalled asking. “ ‘That way, you get revenge on Clement XIV,’ ” came the response.
Many in the crowd, which included journalists’ family members as well as employees of the Vatican media operation, applauded and laughed amid shouts of “Viva il Papa!”
All in all, Francis seemed comfortable, at ease and at times spontaneous. He wore a white cassock, basic black shoes and a plain cross. It was all a marked departure from his predecessor, Benedict XVI, a brilliant theologian who in public was stiff and formal.
After finishing his speech in Italian, in which he also said he respected the freedom and intelligence of independent news media, Francis switched to Spanish. He said he knew that the journalists, both those of the Catholic faith and those of other beliefs, were all children of God.
A small group of Vatican media staff and journalists was led to the stage to greet Francis personally, including visually impaired Italian public broadcasting reporter Alessandro Forlani. The pope then turned to Forlani’s service dog, patted it and blessed it. The audience erupted in applause.
It was appropriate: Francis of Assisi was known for his love of animals.