VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Barely 12 hours after his election, Pope Francis quietly slipped out of the Vatican on Thursday to pray for guidance at one of Rome's great basilicas as he prepared to usher in a new age of simplicity and humility in a Church mired in scandal.
Francis, the Argentinian cardinal who has become the first pope born outside Europe in 1,300 years, went to Rome's 5th-century Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore where he prayed before a famed icon of Mary, the mother of Jesus, which is known as the Salus Populi Romani, or Protectress of the Roman People.
"He spoke to us cordially, like a father," said Father Ludovico Melo, a priest who prayed with the new pontiff. "We were given 10 minutes' advance notice that the pope was coming."
The first leader of the church to come from the Americas, home to nearly half the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, Francis also takes the title of bishop of Rome. He is known for his humility and lack of pretension.
From the basilica, he asked the driver to go to a Rome residence for priests so that he could pick up bags left there before he moved to a Vatican guesthouse for the conclave of cardinals that elected him - confirming that he did not expect to become pope.
The Vatican said Francis, who has a reputation for frugality, insisted on paying the bill. "He was concerned about giving a good example of what priests and bishops should do," a Vatican spokesman said.
Father Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, who lives in the same residence in the winding backstreets of central Rome, told Reuters: "I don't think he needs to worry about the bill. This house is part of the Church and it's his Church now."
The new pontiff has postponed for a few days a trip to the papal summer retreat at Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, to meet his predecessor Benedict, who last month became the first pontiff in 600 years to step down, saying that at 85 he was too frail to tackle all the problems of the Church.
Francis is, at 76, older than many other contenders for the papacy and his age was one of several big surprises about the selection of the Argentine cardinal. The Vatican said on Thursday he was "in very good shape" despite having a lung partially removed more than 50 years ago.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio's election has broken Europe's centuries-old grip on the papacy; he is also the first to take the name Francis, in honor of the 12th-century Italian saint from Assisi who spurned wealth to pursue a life of poverty.
His elevation on the second day of a closed-door conclave of cardinals came as a surprise, with many Vatican watchers expecting a longer deliberation, and none predicting the conservative Argentinian would get the nod.
Some of the background to the vote began trickling out on Thursday, explaining why he was chosen by cardinals looking for a man with pastoral qualities but also the ability to bring the dysfunctional Vatican bureaucracy under control.
French Cardinal Jean-Pierre Ricard told reporters: "We were looking for a pope who was spiritual, a shepherd. I think with Cardinal Bergoglio, we have this kind of person. He is also a man of great intellectual character who I believe is also a man of governance."
Ricard added that what Bergoglio said during cardinals' meetings before the conclave also impressed the 115 electors.
"He said the Church could not really be the Church of Christ if it focused solely on itself and its internal problems but must reach out to men and women on the periphery who felt distant from it."
Francis is seen as a Church leader with the common touch and communications skills, in sharp contrast with Benedict's aloof intellectual nature.
The 266th pontiff in the Church's 2,000-year history, Francis is taking the helm at a time of great crisis.
Morale among the faithful has been hit by a widespread child sex abuse scandal and in-fighting in the Church government or Curia, which many prelates believe needs radical reform.
Francis was not even in media long lists of "papabili" or papal contenders and when he appeared on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday night, he looked as startled as anyone, hesitating a moment before stepping out to greet excited and cheering crowds gathered in the square below.
"I ask a favor of you ... pray for me," he urged the cheering crowds, telling them the 114 other cardinal-electors "went almost to the end of the world" to find a new leader.
"Good night and have a good rest," Bergoglio said before disappearing back into the opulent surroundings of the Vatican City - a far cry from his simple apartment in Buenos Aires.
"Yesterday he transmitted such humility, love and brotherhood," said a woman outside the Roman church he visited on Thursday morning.
Father Tom Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, told reporters on Thursday, "I was stunned by what happened last night. I didn't expect the pontificate to begin with 'Good Night.'"
CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Bergoglio's election answered some fundamental questions about the direction of the Church in the coming years.
After more than a millennium of European leadership, the cardinal-electors looked to Latin America, where 42 percent of the world's Catholics live. The continent is more focused on poverty and the rise of evangelical churches than questions of materialism and sexual abuse, which dominate in the West.
Italian media commentators said on Thursday the power of the Italian voting block amongst the cardinals, nearly a quarter of the total, had been undermined by the "Vatileaks" scandal that revealed infighting and corruption inside the Curia.
This reduced the chances of election of one of the frontrunners, Milan Archbishop Angelo Scola.
Italian bishops had egg on their faces on Thursday after it was revealed that they sent congratulations to Scola, assuming he had been chosen, just after Bergoglio appeared at the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica following his election.
Bergoglio was born into a family of seven, his father an Italian immigrant railway worker and his mother a housewife. He became a priest at 32, a decade after losing a lung due to respiratory illness and quitting his chemistry studies.
Bergoglio has a reputation as someone willing to challenge powerful interests and has had a sometimes difficult relationship with Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and her late husband and predecessor, Nestor Kirchner.
Displaying his conservative orthodoxy, he has spoken out strongly against gay marriage, denouncing it in 2010 as "an attempt to destroy God's plan," and is expected to pursue the uncompromising moral teachings of Benedict and John Paul II, but with a great concern for the poor and social problems.
Bergoglio is the first Jesuit to become pope. The order was founded in the 16th century to serve the papacy and is best known for its work in education and for the intellectual prowess of its members.
The Vatican said his inaugural Mass would be held on Tuesday.
Bergoglio was a rival candidate at the 2005 conclave to Benedict, but his name had not appeared on lists of possible contenders this time around, with many discounting him because of his age, thinking prelates wanted a younger leader.
According to New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Francis raised gales of laughter from fellow cardinals at a relaxed dinner after his election, telling them: "May God forgive you."
At the Basilica of St. Francis in the central town of Assisi, the monks were overjoyed at Francis's choice of name. One of them, Father Guillermo Spirito, said he was also from Argentina.
"I have great admiration for his great humility, his simple, everyman manner. The last time I was with him was in 2010 and he told me that St. Francis was a paradigm of how to live the gospel," he told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Catherine Hornby, Antonio Denti, Naomi O'Leary, Tom Heneghan, Philip Pullella and Keith Weir; writing by Barry Moody; editing by Alastair Macdonald and Giles Elgood)