VATICAN CITY — In unadorned white robes, the first pope from the Americas sets a tone of simplicity and pastoral humility in a church desperate to move past the tarnished era of abuse scandals and internal Vatican upheavals.
The choice of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio — who took the name Francis — reflected a series of history-making decisions by fellow cardinals who seemed determined to offer a message of renewal to a church under pressures on many fronts.
The 76-year-old archbishop of Buenos Aries — the first from Latin America and the first from the Jesuit order — bowed to the crowds in St. Peter's Square and asked for their blessing in a hint of the austere style he cultivated while modernizing the Argentina's conservative Catholic church.
In taking the name Francis, he drew connections to the 13th century St. Francis of Assisi, who saw his calling as trying to rebuild the church in a time of turmoil. It also evokes images of Francis Xavier, one of the 16th century founders of the Jesuit order that is known for its scholarship and outreach.
Francis, the son of middle-class Italian immigrants, is known as a humble man who denied himself the luxuries that previous Buenos Aires cardinals enjoyed. He came close to becoming pope last time, reportedly gaining the second-highest vote total in several rounds of voting before he bowed out of the running in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.
Groups of supporters waved Argentine flags in St. Peter's Square as Francis, wearing simple white robes, made his first public appearance as pope.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, good evening," he said before making a reference to his roots in Latin America, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world's Roman Catholics .
Bergoglio often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina's capital. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
He accused fellow church leaders of hypocrisy and forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.
"Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony. Go out and interact with your brothers. Go out and share. Go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit," Bergoglio told Argentina's priests last year.
Bergoglio's legacy as cardinal includes his efforts to repair the reputation of a church that lost many followers by failing to openly challenge Argentina's murderous 1976-83 dictatorship. He also worked to recover the church's traditional political influence in society, but his outspoken criticism of President Cristina Kirchner couldn't stop her from imposing socially liberal measures that are anathema to the church, from gay marriage and adoption to free contraceptives for all.
"In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don't baptize the children of single mothers because they weren't conceived in the sanctity of marriage," Bergoglio told his priests. "These are today's hypocrites. Those who clericalize the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it's baptized!"
This sort of pastoral work, aimed at capturing more souls and building the flock, is an essential skill for any religious leader in the modern era, said Bergoglio's authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin.
Bergoglio himself felt most comfortable taking a very low profile, and his personal style has been the antithesis of Vatican splendor.
"It's a very curious thing: When bishops meet, he always wants to sit in the back rows. This sense of humility is very well seen in Rome," Rubin said before the 2013 conclave to choose Benedict's successor.
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