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Pope leaves for Lenten retreat

Vatican City – Pope Francis left the Vatican on Sunday for a six-day spiritual retreat southeast of Rome as the holy season of Lent begins. The Pope marks his first anniversary as pontiff this week.

Before leaving, Francis gave the traditional Sunday Angelus blessing to the faithful gathered in Saint Peter’s Square, urging them to resist temptation and focus on the essential things of life.

“We must get rid of idols, of vanities, and build our lives on the essentials,” said the Argentine pope, who was elected to succeed retiring pontiff Benedict XVI a year ago Thursday.

Francis will not be in the Vatican that day but rather in the village of Ariccia until Friday for a retreat during Lent, which began last Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday.

Takes Bus To Village

In his characteristic informal style, the 77-year-old pontiff left for the village along with 82 members of the Vatican Curia in a coach and a mini-bus.

Seated in the first row of the coach, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church waved to the curious onlookers who had gathered to watch this unusual caravan.

First Year Anniversary

The first pope from Latin America was chosen by the College of Cardinals on March 13, 2013.

Over the past year Francis has won admirers and hearts worldwide with his shedding of Vatican luxuries and his emphasis on those who are poor and suffering.

Never has a leader of the Roman Catholic Church become as popular in as short a time as Pope Francis did when he humbly asked the crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square on March 13 last year to pray for him.

Won Hearts Worldwide

A year on, Francis, known for his gentle smile and infectious energy, has won over hearts worldwide. Admirers from Manila to Mexico fondly remember his first appearance on the balcony in the Vatican when he began with the simple greeting, “Good evening.”

Maria Angelica Largo, a 50-year-old from Colombia, said she “immediately felt he was closer to the people, more simple and more human.”

The Argentine-born pope’s humble and homespun style — he likes to mingle with the crowds — also bowled over Roger Kouassi, a teacher in the west African country of Ivory Coast for whom the main thing is that “Francis is closer to the people.”

Tweeter Followers

On Twitter too, the 77-year-old pontiff has built up a following of millions of people and his messages are re-tweeted more than those of tech-savvy US President Barack Obama.

Francis became the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years when he was elected by the College of Cardinals a year ago Thursday to succeed Benedict XVI, who chose to retire and is now pope emeritus.

Over the past year, Francis has won accolades and plaudits for powerful gestures such as washing the feet of young Muslim inmates, embracing the handicapped and asking that gay people not be judged.

‘Being Catholic Is In’

In France, where only three percent of Catholics are identified as practising their religion, priests say there has been an increase in church attendance since Pope Francis’s election.

“Before it was ‘uncool’ to be Catholic, now it’s ‘in’,” said Vallet.

Walking A Tight Rope

Still the man who was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio has to walk a tight rope in his papacy.

Among his challenges are the thorny issues of marriage for priests and overhauling the Vatican’s coffers after a string of scandals, including allegations of waste, corruption and even money-laundering.

And the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics are grappling with sensitive and often divisive issues, such as homosexuality and abortion.

Gay Issue

In comments that made waves around the world, Francis last July famously asked: “If someone is gay and seeks the Lord with good will, who am I to judge?”.

Gay rights groups cautiously welcomed the words as a change in tone, but warned they did not reflect a shift in Catholic Church policy – and certainly not a move towards accepting same-sex marriage.