The Catholic Church’s new leader has begun his first full day as Pope Francis by praying at Rome's main basilica. Vatican sources said he would visit his predecessor, Benedict, outside Rome.
The new Jesuit head of 1.2 billion Roman Catholics worldwide gave staff at Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore basilica only 10 minutes advance notice before his visit on Thursday. He entered through its side entrance to pray before a Virgin Mary icon as he had promised to inauguration crowds on Wednesday.
"He spoke to us cordially like a father," said Ludovico Melo, a priest who took part in the breakfast-time devotions.
In the afternoon, Pope Francis was due to return to the Sistine Chapel to meet the 115 cardinals who elected him at their conclave on Wednesday.
Papal administrator German
Vatican sources said the first South American pontiff and first non-European pope in 1,200 years was also due to go to Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome, the temporary retreat of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
Pope Francis was accompanied early on Thursday by Monsignor Georg Gänswein, a German archbishop and Prefect of the Papal Household, who was the long-time aide of the retired Benedict.
Francis, who is a theological conservative also known for his concern for the poor, begins office with the church mired in turmoil: it is still beset by a lingering clerical sex abuse scandal and document leaks.
Further hopeful reactions to the elevation of the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, to Pope Francis continued Thursday, with the Russian Orthodox Church saying it hoped for a strengthening of inter-faith ties.
"The fact that in Argentina he [Francis] was an ordinary for Catholics of the Eastern rite and, therefore, is well familiar with the Eastern Christianity makes us hope that the relations between the Catholic and Orthodox churches would be further developed," said Dmitry Sizonenko, who is spokesman for the Moscow Patriarchate.
Since Soviet times, the Russian Orthodox Church has had troubled relations with the Catholic Church.
'Better relations' sought by Sunnis
Sunni Islam's highest seat of learning, Al-Azhar, based in Cairo, said it hoped for "better relations" with the Vatican under Pope Francis.
Mahmud Azab, adviser for inter-faith affairs to Al-Azhar imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, told the news agency AFP that "as soon as a new policy emerges, we will resume the dialogue with the Vatican which was suspended in early 2011."
In 2006, the former pope Benedict sparked fury across the Muslim world when he recounted an anecdote suggesting that the Muslim Prophet Muhammed had been a warmonger.
The foreign ministry of China, which has long had strained ties with the Vatican over who has ultimate authority over Chinese Catholics, said that it hoped Francis would take a "practical and flexible" attitude aimed at "improving" China-Vatican relations.
Israeli President Shimon Peres had congratulated Francis and invited him to visit the Holy Land "of Jews, Muslims, and Christians," according to the German news agency DPA.
Asia-Pacific Catholics pleased
Catholics in the Asia-Pacific region hailed the new Argentine pope as a champion of the developing world.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who leads Asia's biggest Catholic country, said she and the Filipino people regarded Francis with a sense of "boundless promise." Aquino said Francis raised hopes of "renewal" in the Catholic Church.
Earlier, world leaders had reacted warmly. US President Barack Obama called Francis "a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us".
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped Francis would continue to promote inter-faith talks.
A Jesuit professor of moral theology at Boston College in the US, Father James Bretzke cautioned church reformists: "He's not going to be a big liberal, there will not be big changes in Church teaching."
"He has a reputation of being rather inflexible and staunchly conservative," said Bretzke.
ipj/mz (Reuters, AP, dpa, AFP)