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Why 'Francis'? The New Pope Explains

Pope Francis held a press conference Saturday, addressing the thousands of journalists who have been at the Vatican to cover his election. Host Scott Simon talks with NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

On the third day of his pontificate, Pope Francis held an audience for the thousands of journalists who've been covering the transition from one papacy to another. And the new pope made it clear that he will try to embody a different style and tone from that of his predecessor, Benedict XVI. He called for an austere church that will serve the poor.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli was in the audience and joins us now from Rome. Sylvia, thanks for being with us.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What did Pope Francis tell you?

POGGIOLI: Well, first of all, he started with a written text but soon abandoned and spoke off-the-cuff, as he did in his first homily on Thursday. And this is already a huge break with past tradition when all papal speeches were provided to reporters hours in advance. And he gave a very clear signal of the kind of church he wants.

POPE FRANCIS: (Italian spoken)

(APPLAUSE)

POGGIOLI: He sounded almost wistful as he said: Oh, how I would like a poor church, a church for the poor. And already, you know, he's given the world an image of humility and modesty. He shunned a Vatican limousine after he was elected and traveled by bus with the other cardinals to their residence. The next day, he dropped by his hotel where he'd been staying before the conclave to pay his bill. And we're told at the dining hall he sits wherever he finds an empty seat.

SIMON: So they charged him at that hotel.

(LAUGHTER)

POGGIOLI: Yes, indeed, they did.

SIMON: I wondered if they would say, no, it's on us, Holy Father.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Any insight as to why he chose the name Francis?

POGGIOLI: He explained that today. He said that he actually also bent some of the rules of secrecy around the conclave papal election. He gave some very interesting details.

When the votes reached the required two-thirds majority, he said applause broke out and a cardinal hugged him and whispered: Don't forget the poor. Other cardinals started proposing names like Hadrian and Clement. But the newly elected pope began reflecting.

FRANCIS: (Italian spoken) Francesco d'Assisi.

(APPLAUSE)

FRANCIS: (Italian spoken)

POGGIOLI: That's when the name of Saint Francis of Assisi entered my heart, he said, the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and safeguards God's creation. At a time, the Pope added, when we do not have a very good relationship with the environment, this is the man who gives us a sense of peace.

SIMON: And is he, in these beginning days, making that apparent even down to a contrast in the style of the clothing which he wears, in contrast to what Pope Benedict wore, for example?

POGGIOLI: Oh, yes. Benedict, you know, had resurrected many medieval vestments that hadn't been used in decades, including the infamous red shoes. And as soon as Francis was elected, the Master of Liturgical Ceremonies was reportedly upset when he refused to don the traditional red cape for its first appearance in public. He also shunned a gold cross and kept his simple metal crucifix.

And in his body language, Francis also differs from his predecessor. Benedict never really appeared at ease when greeting people. But Francis broke another tradition today. He was giving people bear hugs, grabbing their hands when they tried to kiss his ring. And the tone and topics are different. Benedict is inspired by the spirituality of monks in medieval monasteries, but Francis seems more focused on the needs of the faithful in the poor barrios of the world.

Now, it's too soon to say whether this means Francis will introduce the radical reforms that many say are needed here in the Vatican where there really is a crisis of governance.

SIMON: At the same time, what about some of the sharp questions that have been raised about Francis' past in Argentina, during what was called the Dirty War there; the brutal military dictatorship of the 1970s when some, I guess, 30,000 people were kidnapped, tortured and killed?

POGGIOLI: Well, yesterday - yes, the Vatican spokesman forcefully defended the pope from accusations by some human rights activists in Argentina who say that when Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was head of the Jesuit order in Argentina, he did not do enough to halt serious human rights abuses by the junta. The Vatican said there are numerous declarations that show how Bergoglio did protect people at the time. And the Vatican says the accusations are part of a leftist anti-clerical campaign.

But it's known that several members of the Argentine Catholic Church hierarchy were close to the junta. But there's no proof of Bergoglio's complicity with the regime. Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel insists Bergoglio was not an accomplice of the junta, but adds perhaps he did not have the courage to denounce it forcefully enough.

SIMON: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome, thanks so much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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