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Francis embarks on ground-breaking papacy


Pope Francis embarked Thursday on a ground-breaking papacy as the first Latin American leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics and a Church in turmoil.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, the humble 76-year-old son of a railwayman, began his first full day as pontiff with private prayers at a Rome basilica.

The election of the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, who was not considered a favourite in the run-up to this week's secret conclave, was met with widespread surprise and expressions of hope for change in a Church dogged by scandal and internal conflict.

It was also seen as recognition of the Church's rapid growth in Latin America, which is now home to 40 percent of the world's Catholics, in contrast to its decline in Europe.

"The choice of Bergoglio shows that the Church is determined not to remain in mourning for the crisis in Europe but has opened its doors to the revitalising energy of Catholicism's biggest continent," Vatican expert Luigi Accatoli told AFP. "It is a momentous step."

Poisonous rivalries within the Curia -- the Vatican's governing body -- had plagued the papacy of Francis's predecessor Benedict XVI, and experts said they expect the new pope to shake up the sclerotic institution.

The cardinals understood "the need for a huge overhaul to save the Church from the swamps it has slipped into and which the 'Vatileaks' scandal made crystal clear," said Vatican expert Marco Politi, referring to the leaking of secret papal documents.

A litany of firsts heightens the sense of renewal.

Francis is the first non-European pontiff in nearly 1,300 years and also the first from the prestigious Society of Jesus order, or the Jesuits, known for their work in education and promotion of social justice.

Reactions continued to pour in from world leaders, with Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard saying: "The election of a pope from the 'new world' is an occasion of genuinely historic proportions."

The Organisation for the Islamic Conference said Muslim countries hoped "the relationship between Islam and Christianity will regain its cordiality and sincere friendship" under the new pope.

The pointed message reflected a rocky relationship between the two faiths that reached a low in 2006, when Benedict sparked fury across the Muslim world with remarks seen as linking Islam with violence.

Dialogue resumed in 2009, but was again severed after Benedict strongly called for protection of Christian minorities following a 2011 attack on a church in Alexandria, Egypt's second city.

Seen as a moderate conservative, Bergoglio had barely figured in the pre-vote speculation, although he is believed to have finished runner-up to Benedict in the 2005 election.

Projecting an image as a simple man of the people, he chose to name himself after St Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century saint who famously shunned the riches of his family to devote himself to God and the poor.

For his first appearance before the faithful following his election, he declined to wear a scarlet cape over his papal cassock.

The Vatican revealed Thursday that, for the ride back to the conclave lodgings after his election Francis shunned a ride in the papal limousine with the "Vatican City State One" number plates, opting instead to board a minibus with the cardinals.

The gestures were in keeping with Bergoglio's lifestyle in Buenos Aires, where he lived in a small apartment instead of the archbishop's palace and rode the city's clattering buses.

But Bergoglio is not without controversy.

He was only 36 when he was named to lead Argentina's Jesuits, a job he held for six difficult years under the country's 1976-83 military dictatorship.

The future pope was criticised along with other Catholic clergy for failing to act against the "Dirty War" during which 30,000 people died or disappeared.

And he battled to prevent Jesuits from joining the liberation theology movement, which drew many of the continent's Catholic priests into political opposition to Latin America's right-wing governments.

More recently, his opposition to gay marriage and contraception has brought him into conflict with the Argentine government.

The Argentinian of Italian descent became the 266th pope after Benedict stunned the world in February with his decision to resign, the first to voluntarily step down in 700 years.

Benedict's eight-year reign was riven by scandals and the new pope faces the immediate challenges of stamping his authority on the Vatican machinery and trying to coax back a Catholic flock that is deserting churches across the West.

The hushed-up sexual abuse of children by paedophile priests going back decades cast a dark shadow over the conclave, which included several cardinals implicated in the scandals.

Francis will return Thursday to the Sistine Chapel, the hallowed venue of the conclave that elected him on Wednesday, to co-celebrate mass with his former peers.

The Vatican said Francis's inauguration mass would take place on Tuesday -- a significant date in the Catholic calendar because it is the Feast of St Joseph, patron saint of the universal Church.

Benedict, 85, will retire to a former nunnery inside the Vatican. Francis has already called his predecessor and they will meet soon, the Vatican said.