VATICAN CITY (AFP) – Pope Francis warned on Thursday that the troubled Catholic Church risked becoming little more than a charity with no spiritual foundations if it failed to undergo renewal.
The 76-year-old Argentinian told the cardinals who elected him as Latin America’s first pope that the Church could “end up a compassionate NGO.”
“I would like all of us after these days of grace to have the courage to walk in the presence of the Lord,” Francis said in his first mass, amid the splendor of the Sistine Chapel.
He warned the cardinals against “the worldliness of the Devil.”
“Walking, building and confessing are not so easy. Sometimes there are tremors,” the pope said, in a homily that will be scrutinized for clues to the style of his leadership.
The new head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, who was formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, had begun his reign by meeting people in Rome and laying a bouquet of flowers in homage to the Virgin Mary in a basilica.
The pope also prayed at the altar of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order to which he belongs.
He returned to the priests’ quarters where he stayed before the conclave and settled his own bill.
The election of the son of an Italian emigrant railway worker, who was considered a rank outsider, was met with widespread surprise and expressions of hope for change in a Church riven by scandal and internal conflict.
His elevation was also seen as recognition of the Church’s power in Latin America, which now accounts for 40 percent of the world’s Catholics, while it is in decline in Europe.
“The choice of Bergoglio shows that the Church is determined not to remain in mourning for the crisis in Europe but has opened its doors to the revitalizing energy of Catholicism’s biggest continent,” Vatican expert Luigi Accatoli told AFP.
Projecting an image as a simple man of the people, the pope chose to name himself after St Francis of Assisi, the 13th century saint who shunned the riches of his family to devote himself to God and the poor.
The Vatican revealed that, for the ride back to the conclave lodgings after Wednesday’s election, Francis shunned the papal limousine with the “Vatican City State One” number plates and instead boarded a minibus with the cardinals.
It was in keeping with his image as a man who as archbishop of Buenos Aires chose to live in a modest apartment rather than the official residence and took buses to work.
Experts said they expected the new pope to shake up the Vatican, where poisonous rivalries within the Curia – its governing body – plagued the papacy of Francis’s predecessor Benedict XVI.
Benedict, 85, abruptly ended his eight-year papacy last month saying he lacked the strength to deal with the rigours of the job.
The Vatican confirmed that Francis had part of a lung removed as a boy, but its spokesman Federico Lombardi insisted: “This is not a handicap in his life.
“Those who know him have always seen him in good health.”
Meanwhile, decades before he became Pope Francis, Bergoglio was a “little devil” who jumped up and down the stairs of his century-old Buenos Aires school, the establishment’s mother superior told AFP.
The Argentine cardinal memorized his multiplication tables aloud as he skipped steps at the De la Misericordia school, where he celebrated his First Communion at the age of nine, Sister Martha Rabino remembered.
“He was a devil, a little devil, very mischievous, like every boy,” the 71-year-old nun said with a smile.
“Who would have known that he would become pope!”
Rabino wept tears of joy when the 76-year-old Jesuit, who still shares tea with milk with the school’s nuns, was elected to the throne of St. Peter on Wednesday, becoming the first Latin American leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
“That’s how saints are,” said Rabino, who taught catechism to Cristina Kirchner in the nearby city of La Plata decades before she became president of Argentina.
• Former Philippine President and Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo joined the nation in welcoming the election of Pope Francis. Now under hospital detention at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center in Quezon City, Arroyo is not allowed to talk to the media but issued a press statement through her spokesperson, Elena Bautista-Horn.
• Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou plans to visit the Vatican to attend the installation of the newly-elected pope, officials said Friday, in a move bound to upset China. The Vatican is the only European nation to maintain diplomatic ties with Taipei instead of Beijing.
• The Franciscan friars in the Philippines felt honored that Pope Francis chose the name of St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Orders of Friars Minor (OFM). Minister Provincial of the San Pedro Bautista Province, Fr. Lino Gregorio Redoblado, OFM, said he believes it is truly God’s call for the whole Church to journey the path of renewal and conversion that St. Francis also began by bringing new life and vigor to the Church. (With reports from Ben R. Rosario, AFP, and Leslie Ann G. Aquino)