New pope pays homage to Virgin Mary on first outing

Pope Francis visited a Rome basilica in his first outing on Thursday as the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church, entering discreetly through a side door before placing a bouquet of flowers in homage to the Virgin Mary.

Dressed in the white papal vestments, Francis was driven to the basilica in a standard-issue Vatican car rather than the papal limousine, in keeping with early signs that the ascetic 76-year-old Argentinian will shun the perks of high office.

The low-key visit to the Salus Populi Romani at the ancient Santa Maria Maggiore church in the Eternal City lasted just 20 minutes.

The church was closed to the public and just a dozen excited nuns, priests and seminarians were there to greet him.

It was a world away from the scene the night before when the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped onto the balcony of St Peter's Basilica to greet tens of thousands of people after cardinals made him Latin America's first pope.

The pope had told the elated crowd on Wednesday that his first act would be to pray to the Virgin Mary.

"He stayed for 20 minutes in front of an image of the Virgin Mary and laid a very simple bouquet of flowers," said Giuseppe, one of the seminarians at the church, still clearly moved after his encounter with the new Bishop of Rome.

"He was wearing a white cassock, black -- not red -- shoes, his cardinal's ring and a silver cross," he told AFP.

After laying the bouquet, Francis moved on to pray at a reliquary of Christ's manger and at the altar of St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order to which the new pope belongs.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi, himself a Jesuit, explained later: "For us Jesuits, that place is very significant because the founder of our church celebrated his first mass there in 1538."

Father Ludovico Melo, who met the pope during the visit, said: "It was an emotional meeting, full of joy and humility. The Holy Father said to us, 'be merciful, be merciful'."

As the pope left the basilica to climb into the car, he raised his arm to greet children gathered at the windows of a school opposite who shouted and waved to attract his attention.

Francis was to return later Thursday to the Sistine Chapel, the venue of the conclave that elected him on Wednesday, to co-celebrate mass with the cardinals who elevated him to the Church's top job.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio took a keen interest in the poor and dispossessed, shown by his choice of the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century saint who famously eschewed his family's wealth to devote himself to God and the poor.