VATICAN CITY » Pope Francis did away with pomp and protocol on the first full day of his papacy today, confirming his preference for simplicity and humbleness.
Argentine-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio already has broken with Catholic Church tradition on several counts. He is the first non-European pope since the eighth century; the first from Latin America; the first Jesuit; and the first to have assumed the name Francis.
On Wednesday, after his election in the Sistine Chapel conclave, he refused the papal limousine to go back to the Santa Marta residence where cardinals had been staying.
"He preferred riding on the minibus with the others," Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said.
The new pope — who was known to use public transport and cook for himself as Archbishop of Buenos Aires — decided not to wear an ermine fur cape, as Benedict XVI had done before him, when he appeared from the centre balcony of Saint Peter’s Basilica for the first time.
Bergoglio’s humble demeanor was also evident when he asked the faithful to pray for him before giving his blessing. He also showed some humor, commenting that his fellow cardinals had gone to "almost the end of the world" to find him.
Again wearing simple clothes and using a normal car rather than the papal Mercedes, he visited Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore today. He was accompanied by George Gaenswein, the Prefect of the Papal Household and the personal secretary of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
"The security forces are at the service of the pope and not the other way round," the Rev. Thomas Rosica, another Vatican spokesman, said when asked whether the Vatican was concerned about his informal ways.
"It looked as if he had always been a pope. He did not look embarrassed or scared," the Rev. Elio Monteleone, a Franciscan friar from the Basilica, said after witnessing the papal visit.
The pontiff then went to pick up his personal belongings from the Vatican guesthouse in central Rome, where he had stayed before the start of the conclave.
In the afternoon, he returned to the Sistine Chapel to celebrate Mass with his fellow cardinals electors, while his audience with the entire College of Cardinals — including those over 80 age — is scheduled for Friday.
From the moment white smoke announced the papal election, signals were sought about what kind of chief the 76-year-old Francis will be for a church beset by infighting, scandal and dwindling global appeal.
Francis had been seen as a contender for the top job by Vatican experts, but not as a frontrunner given his age. Benedict, who said he was too frail to continue leading the Church, was just two years older than the new pope when he was elected, in 2005.
The Vatican also has confirmed that he had part of his lung removed when he was 21, but insisted that he is in good shape.
"Those who have known him for 30 or 40 years say they have always seen him in good health, so this does not seem to be a handicap," Lombardi said.
The bar is set high as the Catholic faithful hope for a leader with the charisma of Pope John Paul II, the theological rigor of Benedict XVI and the energy and organizational leadership of a multinational chief executive bent on reform.
In Argentina, Bergoglio has maintained a conservative stance on issues such as abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women, while acting as a champion of the poor. He often clashed with political leaders, including President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.
However, his reputation is sullied by suspicions that he collaborated with the military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983, during which an estimated 30,000 people were killed. The allegations have never been proved.
Bergoglio became the Roman Catholic Church’s 266th pope after Benedict’s surprise resignation in February, and following five rounds of voting by 115 cardinal electors. The son of an Italian immigrant, he is a fan of the Buenos Aires football club San Lorenzo de Almagro, and appreciates tango dancing and Beethoven.
In an interview to Argentina’s La Nacion newspaper before the start of the conclave, he had said he had "no chance of becoming pope."
"This time, age is playing against me," he had said, as Vatican experts noted that he had emerged as Benedict’s only real challenger during the 2005 conclave.