Newly elected Pope Francis went to Rome's main basilica Thursday morning to pray. He is expected to reach out to former pope Benedict later Thursday. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
A new dawn broke over the Vatican on Thursday as Roman Catholics awoke to the church's first non-European leader in 1,300 years following the election of Pope Francis.
The Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who was greeted by thunderous applause from a crowd of 100,000 in St Peter's Square late Wednesday, began his first full day with a quick and discrete visit to Rome's Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.
"He spoke to us cordially like a father," Father Ludovico Melo told Reuters after the meeting. "We were given 10 minutes' advance notice that the pope was coming".
The new pope, who is also now Bishop of Rome, prayed before a famous icon of the Madonna called the Salus Populi Romani, or Protectress of the Roman People.
A theological conservative but also hailed for his compassion towards the poor, 76-year-old Pope Francis is the first Jesuit leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, and the first from the Americas.
He was expected to make history yet again in his first few days by becoming the first pope in more than 600 years to meet his predecessor. Francis will travel to the hillside papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo to greet the pope emeritus, who is living there temporarily after abdicating on Feb. 28.
Francis will be formally installed as the church's new leader on Tuesday.
The new pope's election has broken Europe's centuries-old grip on the papacy, and his choice of name - in honor of the 12th century saint from Assisi - is widely seen as a nod to a new era of simplicity and humility.
"I think he will be a pope who thinks about more than just the Vatican," said Maryland native Marjorie Steiner, 61, who visited St. Peter's Square on Thursday as part of a vacation in Rome.
Dory Gordon, 51, from Houston, Texas, who was also on vacation, said: "As a Catholic I'm really excited that they have made this break with tradition - it sens out a good message that the church is here for all the world's people."
NBC News' Vatican expert George Weigel said Francis would "certainly" prove to be a reformer when it comes to the Roman curia - the Vatican bureaucracy at the heart of the Catholic church.
In the pontiff's native Argentina, Catholics were jubilant.
"I hope he changes all the luxury that exists in the Vatican, that he steers the Church in a more humble direction, something closer to the gospel," Jorge Andres Lobato, a 73-year-old retired state prosecutor, told The Associated Press.
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SOURCE: NBC News