Pope prays at Sta Maria Maggiore

Pope Francis has opened his pontificate with a visit to Rome's main basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary - Santa Maria Maggore.

The visit came the day after cardinals elected him the first pontiff from the Americas in a bid to resurrect a Catholic Church in crisis.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, entered the basilica through a side entrance and left about 30 minutes later, Italy's RAI state television said.

He told a crowd of 100,000 people packed into a rain-soaked St Peter's Square just after his election yesterday that he intended to pray to the Madonna "that she may watch over all of Rome".

He told cardinals he would also call on retired Pope Benedict XVI tomorrow and celebrate an inaugural mass in the Sistine Chapel.

Francis visited St Mary Major basilica the day after cardinals elected him leader of the 1.2 million-strong church in an unusually quick conclave.

The first Jesuit pope and first non-European since the Middle Ages decided to call himself Francis after St Francis of Assisi, the humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor.

The new pope charmed the crowd in St Peter's which roared when his name was announced yesterday.

Waving shyly, he told said the cardinals' job was to find a bishop of Rome. "It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth, but here we are. Thank you for the welcome."

The 76-year-old, said to have finished second when Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, was chosen on the fifth ballot to replace the first pontiff to resign in 600 years. In the past century, only Benedict, John Paul I in 1978 and Pius XII in 1939 were elected faster.

Francis spoke by phone with Benedict, who has been living at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo, and is to visit him tomorrow, according to US Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

Benedict's long-time aide, Monsignor Georg Gaenswein, accompanied Francis to the visit at St Mary Major, the ANSA news agency reported. In addition to being Benedict's secretary, Msg Gaenswein is also the prefect of the papal household and will be arranging the new pope's schedule.

Francis's election elated Latin Americans, who number 40% of the world's Catholics but have long been under-represented in the church leadership. Drivers honked their horns in the streets of Buenos Aires and television announcers screamed with elation at the news.

"It's a huge gift for all of Latin America. We waited 20 centuries. It was worth the wait," said Jose Antonio Cruz, a Franciscan friar at the St Francis of Assisi church in the colonial Old San Juan district in Puerto Rico. "Everyone from Canada down to Patagonia is going to feel blessed."

The new pontiff brings a common touch. The son of middle-class Italian immigrants, he denied himself the luxuries that previous cardinals in Buenos Aires enjoyed. He lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited slums that ring Argentina's capital.

He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.

"As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years - that in each other, we see the face of God," president Barack Obama said in a statement.

"I want you to bless me," Francis said in his first appearance from the balcony of St Peter's Basilica, asking the faithful to bow their heads in silent prayer.


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