VATICAN CITY -- Inside the Holy See on Saturday, Pope Francis was greeting a procession of well-wishers when a visually impaired radio journalist with a guide dog approached. The new pontiff smiled, leaned over and blessed the golden retriever, eliciting surprised chuckles from the crowd.
The moment captured the emerging story line of a papacy in the early stages of transformation by the first New World pope. As he eschews the trappings of his exalted office -- mingling directly with cardinals rather than receiving them formally from an elevated white chair -- Francis is already building a reputation here as "the casual pontiff."
It is an impression the Vatican, an institution in crisis and in search of a new beginning, is doing little to dispel. Only time will tell the extent to which an austere Argentine cleric, known for taking public transit and kissing the feet of drug addicts and AIDS patients, can remold the ancient office.
But as the new pope has appeared to exude humility, even charm, during his first few days in Vatican City, there appears to be an early sense that an institution craving a new image may have found its man.
Rather than appearing to be a larger-than-life, charismatic leader like John Paul II or a dogmatic teacher as some described Pope Benedict XVI, Francis's soft-spoken, straightforward manner seems aimed at winning over audiences by putting himself on their level.
Talking about the new pope's ability to revitalize his flock, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said: "I would think you could point to his style, his pastoral history and his whole manner in what we have seen in just the last couple of days. Live it. Let people see it, and that in itself is bearing witness."
In an interview with NBC's Today show, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan gushed over the new pope's humble demeanour. He noted that rather than take the papal limousine -- widely known as Vatican One -- back to the his accommodations after being named pope, Francis jumped on a minibus.
"We cardinals noticed some things immediately that he was doing differently," Dolan said. He added: "He got back on the bus with us, like he had been doing for the whole conclave. Those are little signs that send signals."
Those signs include his decision to appear on the balcony of St. Peter without the red mozzetta --the telltale short cape of the papacy. And on the morning after he was named pope, Francis reportedly doubled back to his church boarding house to personally cover his bill.
Francis brought with him an image of simplicity from Buenos Aires, where he was known for living in modest quarters. On Saturday, during his first encounter with the international news media as pope, he appeared surprisingly informal, seeming almost uncomfortable as the center of attention.
As a select number of journalists and Vatican officials approached him for a blessing, he occasionally lifted them up from the traditional kneeling position to kiss his ring in order to give them a hug and a kiss. Although filling a revered role as spiritual leader to the globe's 1.2 billion Catholics, Francis earned several rounds of laughter from the audience with his unscripted remarks. At other times, he appeared to move those present with his candor.
He addressed the lack of clarity over his selection of Francis as his papal name. During the conclave last week, the Pope explained, he had been seated next to a dear friend, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a Brazilian archbishop emeritus, as his selection became more likely.
"When the matter became dangerous, he comforted me," the Pope said. When it became clear a new pope had been chosen, Hummes "embraced me and kissed me and said: 'Don't forget the poor.' And that struck me. The poor. Immediately, I thought of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis was a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation."
So, the new pope said, he took the name after Saint Francis of Assisi to show "how I would love a church that is poor and for the poor."
-- Washington Post