VATICAN CITY -- He’s a charmer.
Pope Francis on Saturday went before several thousand journalists, thanked them for their work, told a joke or two and even blessed (or at least patted) 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 who are based in Rome or had flown in 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 press for its work during this “intense period” which 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 some have wondered which Francis was his inspiration.
The balloting inside the Sistine Chapel was clearly going his way when Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the retired archbishop of Sao Paulo, “my 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 asked. “That way you get revenge on Clement XIV,” came the response.
The crowd, which also included many journalists’ family members as well as employees of the Vatican press operation, was loving it. They applauded and laughed amid shouts of “Viva il papa!”
All in all, Francis seemed comfortable and 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 an independent press, Francis switched to Spanish. He said that 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 press staff and journalists was led to the stage to greet Francis personally, including a blind man with a guide dog. Francis embraced the man, then turned to the dog, and the crowd roared. Appropriate: Francis of Assisi was known for his love of animals
“This was extraordinary,” said Carlo Marroni, a correspondent with the Italian daily Il Sole 24 Ore.