'Common touch' pope charms journalists

Pope Francis received a standing ovation from journalists at the Vatican on Saturday after telling them "You've worked, hey? You've worked!", in an audience which provided another sign that his papacy will be less austere than his predecessors.

The former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a 76-year-old Argentinian, was a surprise choice in this week's papal conclave, and the special audience with 3,000 media workers and their families was presented by the Vatican as indicating the new pope's openness.

From the start, he was applauded by Vatican media officials and representatives of the Holy See's in-house Osservatore Romano newspaper and Vatican Radio, but by the end of his 15-minute speech he had won over many of the others present.

There were even several cries of "Viva il papa" (Long live the pope), and some of the international journalists who had made their way to Rome to cover his election got to their feet to salute him.

It helped that the pope began by praising their "very professional work", recognising an intense period in the Holy See triggered by the unexpected resignation of pope Benedict XVI on February 11.

Looking up from a prepared text, Francis smiled, paused, and -- to the bemusement of the audience -- said: "You've worked, hey? You've worked!"

In a schoolteacher tone, he could not resist giving his audience a lesson in what he thinks they should be doing -- presenting the Catholic Church as an organisation with a "spiritual nature", not a political or economic one.

The work of a pope and a journalist had many things in common, he said: "Paying attention to truth, to goodness and to beauty."

Francis also departed from papal tradition by revealing a few details of the supposedly top-secret deliberations among cardinals that led to this election. He joked that the point when he realised he was about to become leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics was "when things started to get dangerous".

Explaining that he had chosen his name because he was inspired by St Francis of Assisi, who turned his back on his family's wealth to dedicate his life to the poor, Francis -- a Jesuit -- revealed that some prelates had asked him: "Why not Adrian, like the reforming pope (Adrian VI). Or Clement XV, to avenge the Jesuits?" -- pope Clement XIV dissolved the Jesuit order in the 18th century.

Once the speech was over, a selected group of journalists was presented to the pope.

Francis smiled broadly as he embraced friends and acquaintances, but he made a point of insisting that those who tried to kneel before him stood instead and he also seemed reluctant to allow people to kiss his ring -- a common custom.

Sergio Rubin, a journalist at the Argentinian newspaper Clarin and co-author of a biography of Bergoglio when he was a cardinal, also got to meet him.

"It was a very nice moment, I saw the Jorge Bergoglio I know, with that same modesty, the same calmness. He wasn't at all grand," he told AFP.

Several people gave the pope gifts, but none would have been as familiar to him as the cup and straw to drink mate, the South American tea he has imbibed for years.

"When I found out yesterday that I had been selected, I was wondering what I could bring him. Mate was the obvious answer," said Virginia Bonard, a journalist from the pope's home city of Buenos Aires.

"For Argentinians, it's the drink of friendship that's passed from one person to the next while we discuss things."

Once the long procession of journalists was complete -- the pope even took the time to stroke the guide dog of a blind journalist -- Francis slipped from Italian into his native Spanish to offer a blessing to all in the room, even atheists, "because you are all the children of God".

And with that, he was gone -- leaving the Vatican auditorium on foot without the customary papal limo.