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"He met with us on our own level," Dolan said.
"I think we’re going to see a call to Gospel simplicity," said U.S. Cardinal Donald Wuerl. "He is by all accounts a very gentle but firm, very loving but fearless, a very pastoral and caring person ideal for the challenges today."
During dinner, Francis, however, acknowledged the daunting nature of those challenges in a few words addressed to the cardinal electors: "‘May God forgive you for what you have done,’" Francis said, according to witnesses.
The Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi acknowledged the difference in style between the two popes, attributing it to Francis’ life work as the pastor of Buenos Aires whereas Benedict was long an academic. He said it was too early to make a "profound evaluation" of Francis’ priorities, urging instead reflection on his first few homilies — particularly at his installation Mass on Tuesday.
The 76-year-old Bergoglio, said to have finished second when Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, was chosen on just the fifth ballot to replace the first pontiff to resign in 600 years.
Francis urged the crowd to pray for Benedict and immediately after his election spoke by phone with the retired pope, who has been living at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo south of Rome. A visit to Benedict would be significant because Benedict’s resignation has raised concerns about potential power conflicts emerging from the peculiar situation of having a reigning pope and a retired one.
Benedict’s longtime aide, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, accompanied Francis to the visit Thursday morning at St. Mary Major. In addition to being Benedict’s secretary, Gaenswein is also the prefect of the papal household and will be arranging the new pope’s schedule.
Like many Latin American Catholics, Francis has a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary, and his visit to the basilica was a reflection of that. He prayed before a Byzantine icon of Mary and the infant Jesus, the Protectress of the Roman People.
"He had a great devotion to this icon of Mary and every time he comes from Argentina he visits this basilica," said one of the priests at the basilica, the Rev. Elio Montenero. "We were surprised today because he did not announce his visit."
He then also went into the main altar area of the basilica and prayed before relics of the manger in Bethlehem where Jesus is said to have been born — an important pilgrimage spot for Jesuits
Francis’ election elated Latin America, home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics which has nevertheless long been underrepresented in the church leadership. On Wednesday, drivers honked their horns in the streets of Buenos Aires and television announcers screamed with elation at the news.
Cardinal Thomas Collins, the archbishop of Toronto, said the cardinals clearly chose Francis because he was simply "the best person to lead the church."
"I can’t speak for all the cardinals but I think you see what a wonderful pope he is," he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "He’s just a very loving, wonderful guy. We just came to appreciate the tremendous gifts he has. He’s much beloved in his diocese in Argentina. He has a great pastoral history of serving people."
The new pontiff brings a common touch. The son of middle-class Italian immigrants, he denied himself the luxuries that previous cardinals in Buenos Aires enjoyed. He lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited slums that ring Argentina’s capital.
"If he brings that same desire for a simple lifestyle to the papal court, I think they are all going to be in shock," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican," an authoritative book on the Vatican bureaucracy. "This may not be a man who wants to wear silk and furs."
Francis considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
As the 266th pope, Francis inherits a Catholic church in turmoil, beset by the clerical sex abuse scandal, internal divisions and dwindling numbers in parts of the world where Christianity had been strong for centuries.
While Latin America is still very Catholic, it has faced competition from aggressive evangelical churches that have chipped away at strongholds like Brazil, where the number of Catholics has dropped from 74 percent of the population in 2000 to 65 percent today. Like Europe, secularism has also taken hold: more and more people simply no longer identify themselves with any organized religion.
Francis also inherits a Vatican bureaucracy in need of sore reform. The leaks of papal documents last year exposed the petty turf battles and allegations of corruption in the Holy See administration.
One of his most important and watched appointments will be that of his secretary of state, who effectively runs the Holy See. Lombardi said Francis, like his predecessors, would probably confirm all Vatican officials in their jobs for the time being, and make changes at a later date.
Reporter Rob Gillies in Toronto, Karl Ritter and photographer Luca Bruno in Rome contributed.
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