Pope signals more open papacy for troubled Church

Pope Francis will on Saturday meet the world's press at the dawn of an already tradition-breaking leadership for a troubled Catholic Church, after the Vatican rejected claims he did nothing to save lives during Argentina's "Dirty War".

The special audience at 1000 GMT is being billed by the Vatican as part of the greater openness that has characterised the first days in office of the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first Catholic leader from Latin America.

The 76-year-old pontiff has displayed an informal style that contrasts sharply with that of his more academic predecessor and the tradition-bound Vatican.

Under the simple slogan of "walk, build, confess" and speaking in a folksy Italian, he has urged Catholic leaders to shun worldly glories and lead a spiritual renewal in the Church that will reach "the ends of the earth".

He has warned them that the Church could end up becoming a "castle of sand" and just a charity with no spiritual foundation without action.

The railway worker's son said he and his cardinals were "elderly", but old age brought wisdom "like good wine that gets better over the years".

The Roman Catholic Church has been rocked in recent years by multiple scandals including thousands of cases of abuse of children by paedophile priests, stretching back decades, and intrigue in the Vatican bureaucracy.

Catholics are also abandoning churches in huge numbers in an increasingly secularised West.

A moderate conservative in Argentina where he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis is unlikely to change any of the fundamental tenets of Catholic doctrine but he could push for more social justice and a friendlier faith.

Vatican experts have said his priorities will also include reforming the administration of the Church and the Vatican bank, which is being investigated in a money laundering case.

The Vatican on Friday rejected claims that Pope Francis had failed to protect two Jesuit priests who were kidnapped and tortured by Argentina's military junta (1976-1983), and said he had in fact helped save lives.

The Vatican said the accusations were "defamatory" and "anti-clerical".

Bergoglio has been criticised by leftist Argentinians for his actions at a time when he was head of the country's Jesuits but not yet a bishop.

Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Bergoglio in fact "did a lot to protect people during the dictatorship" in which 30,000 died or disappeared.

Francis hailed his predecessor Benedict XVI's historic resignation as a "courageous and humble act".

Benedict, who last month became the first Roman Catholic pope to stand down for 700 years, "lit a flame in the depth of our hearts that will continue to burn", he said.

On Friday, Francis visited Argentinian cardinal Jorge Mejia in a local Rome hospital, a day after the 90-year old suffered a heart attack.

He spent 20 minutes with Mejia before blessing the hands of the cardiologist treating him.

"It was amazing. He is really down-to-earth. He makes you feel at ease immediately," the doctor, Marco Miglionico, later told reporters.

He chatted warmly with staff and also blessed patients in intensive care before going to the hospital's chapel to pray.

The new pontiff's inauguration mass will take place on Tuesday -- the Feast of St Joseph, the patron saint of the universal church.

He has called on the faithful in his native Argentina not to fly in for the mass but rather give the money the trip would have cost to charity. Nonetheless, heads of state from all over the world are expected to be present.

The new pontiff is also due to meet his predecessor, who has withdrawn to the papal summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, in the coming days.

The surprise election of the working-class son of Italian emigrant parents, who was considered a rank outsider before the cardinals began their confidential deliberations, has sparked hope for change in the Church.

Francis fans have already begun snapping up rosary beads and postcards with his face on them at souvenir shops in the Vatican and New York's Bice restaurant has created a new dish -- barbecued steak pasta -- in homage to the pope's Argentinian and Italian roots.

His election is being seen as a nod to the Church's power in Latin America, which is home to 40 percent of the world's Catholics. In Europe, its traditional power base, it is ageing and declining.

As archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis lived in a modest apartment rather than the official residence, and he has already made his mark in Rome with his informal style.

Following his election the new pope chose to ride in a minibus with his fellow cardinals rather than use the papal limousine -- and he later went to pack his own bags at the lodgings where he was living before the conclave to move in to the Vatican.

The Vatican said staff at the clergy house in central Rome knew him well from previous visits and were overcome with emotion when he greeted them by name and asked after their families.