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Pope Francis prays at Rome basilica in 1st outing

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    Pope Francis opened his first morning as pontiff by praying Thursday at Rome's main basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary
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VATICAN CITY -

Pope Francis opened his first morning as pontiff by praying Thursday at Rome's main basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary, a day after cardinals elected him the first pope from the Americas in a bid to revive a Catholic Church in crisis and give it a preacher with a humble touch.

The former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, entered the St. Mary Major basilica through a side entrance just after 8 a.m. (0700 GMT) and left about 30 minutes later. He had told a crowd of some 100,000 people packed in rain-soaked St. Peter's Square just after his election 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 on Thursday, though the Vatican said it had no information about a visit. The main item on his agenda was an inaugural afternoon Mass in the Sistine Chapel, where cardinals on Wednesday elected him leader of the 1.2 billion-strong church in an unusually quick conclave.

Francis, 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 immediately charmed the crowd in St. Peter's that roared when his name was announced.

Waving shyly, he 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 Bergoglio, said to have finished second when Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, was chosen on just 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.

Immediately after his election, Francis spoke by phone with Benedict, who has been living at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo. A visit to him would be significant because Benedict's resignation has raised concerns about potential power conflicts emerging from the peculiar situation of having a reigning pope and a retired one.

Benedict's longtime 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, Gaenswein is also the prefect of the papal household and will be arranging the new pope's schedule.

Like many Latin American Catholics, Francis has a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary, and his visit to the basilica was a reflection of that. He prayed before a Byzantine icon of Mary and the infant Jesus, the Protectress of the Roman People.

"He had a great devotion to this icon of Mary and every time he comes from Argentina he visits this basilica," said one of the priests at the basilica, the Rev. Elio Montenero. "We were surprised today because did not announce his visit."

Francis' election elated Latin America, home to 40 percent of the world's Catholics which has nevertheless long been underrepresented in the church leadership. On Wednesday, 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.

"If he brings that same desire for a simple lifestyle to the papal court, I think they are all going to be in shock," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of "Inside the Vatican," a must-read book on the Vatican bureaucracy. "This may not be a man who wants to wear silk and furs."

Francis 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," U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement.

As the 266th pope, Francis inherits a Catholic church in turmoil, beset by the clerical sex abuse scandal, internal divisions and dwindling numbers in parts of the world where Christianity had been strong for centuries.

While Latin America is still very Catholic, it has faced competition from aggressive evangelical churches that have chipped away at strongholds like Brazil, where the number of Catholics has dropped from 74 percent of the population in 2000 to 65 percent today. Like Europe, secularism has also taken hold: more and more people simply no longer identify themselves with any organized religion.

Francis is sure to bring the church closer to the poverty-wracked region, while also introducing the world to a very different type of pope, whose first words were a simple, "Brothers and sisters, good evening."

He asked for prayers for himself, and for Benedict, whose stunning resignation paved the way for his election.

"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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