VATICAN CITY, March 17, 2013— -- Before an astounding crowd of some 300,000 in and around St. Peter's Square, Pope Francis today delivered his first angelus as pontiff, urging the faithful to be merciful and forgiving.
Hours earlier, the humility and spontaneity of the 76-year-old Argentine was on display when he greeted onlookers near the edge of Vatican City.
As the pope was entering a mass in St. Anna Parish, he decided to stop and greet a crowd of people awaiting his arrival. Walking up to the crowd, Francis shook hands, held a baby, and even motioned for two priests he recognized in the crowd to bypass the barricades and approach him.
It was the latest sign of the informality of the new pontiff. In the days since he was selected by his fellow cardinals to lead the Roman Catholic Church, Francis has shunned the fancy red shoes of his predecessor Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI in favor of simple black shoes, declined a ride in a limousine in favor of a mini-van, and donned simple white robes and a wooden cross. The new informal style has been welcomed by followers and colleagues worldwide.
"I think just the way he is behaving is very discreet. It is very ordinary," Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of South Africa said. "It's very much like, 'I am the pope, but I can still sit down at any table with anybody. I can share my stories. I can talk about my life. I can share about my ministry.'"
In St. Peter's Square today, Americans in the crowd marveled at the pope's humility.
"He just seems very humble in the way that he presents himself," said Christina Senour, who now lives in Rome.
"It has really struck me that he is so without frills," added her brother-in-law, David Uebbing.
Uebbing's wife Jennifer predicted that the pope's displays of modestly will help the church grow.
"I think he's working very honestly and simply to transmit his humility to the world and to set an example, to say here is the church, it's not rich and grand and aloof, but it is down with the people and for the people," she said.
On Tuesday morning, Francis will return to the square for his papacy's inaugural mass.
Later today, Vice President Joe Biden is set to arrive in Rome to attend the mass. On Monday, Francis is scheduled to meet the president of his homeland, Christina Kirchner, whom he has criticized in the past.
Then next weekend Francis will meet with his predecessor, in a unique, historic meeting between the current pope and a fellow living pope.
Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia told reporters today that Francis is delivering a similar message to that delivered by Benedict, who earlier this year became the first pope in nearly six centuries to resign.
"He's pronouncing the same message of God's mercy. That is what is so important," Rigali said of Francis. "But he is doing it in his way, just as Benedict did it in his way.
"We all have our gifts," he added.