VATICAN CITY — Inside a vast hall in the Holy See on Saturday, Pope Francis was greeting a procession of well-wishers when a visually impaired radio journalist with a guide dog approached. Without skipping a beat, the new pontiff smiled, leaned over and blessed the golden retriever, eliciting surprised chuckles from the crowd.
The moment captured the emerging story line of a papacy in the early stages of transformation by the first New World pope. As he eschews the trappings of his exalted office — forgoing the use of the red papal cape in public and mingling directly with cardinals rather than receiving them formally from an elevated white chair — Francis is already building a reputation here as “the casual pontiff.”
It is an impression the Vatican, an institution in crisis and in search of a new beginning, is doing little to dispel. Only time will tell the extent to which an austere Argentine cleric, known for taking public transit and kissing the feet of drug addicts and AIDS patients, can remold the ancient office. Questions, for instance, are still swirling about his actions during Argentina’s so-called “dirty war” from 1976 to 1983.
But as the new pope has appeared to exude humility, even charm, during his first few days in Vatican City, there appears to be an early sense, at least among the church hierarchy, that an institution craving a new image may have just found its man.
Some are holding out hope that he can recapture an echo of the global popularity of Pope John Paul II. But others describe Francis as having a style that is wholly different from either of the past two popes. Rather than appearing to be a larger-than-life, charismatic leader like John Paul II or a dogmatic teacher as some have described Pope Benedict XVI, Francis’s soft-spoken, straightforward manner appears aimed more at gently winning over audiences by putting himself on their level.
Talking about the new pope’s ability to revitalize his flock, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said: “I would think you could point to his style, his pastoral history and his whole manner in what we have seen in just the last couple of days. Live it. Let people see it, and that in itself is bearing witness.”
In an interview with NBC’s “Today” show, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan gushed over the new pope’s humble demeanor. He noted that rather than take the papal limousine — widely known as Vatican One — back to his accommodations after being named pope, Francis instead jumped on a minibus.
“We cardinals noticed some things immediately that he was doing differently,” Dolan said. He later added: “He got back on the bus with us, like he had been doing for the whole conclave. Those are little signs that send signals.”
Those little signs include his decision to appear on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica without the red mozzetta — the telltale short cape of the papacy. And on the morning after he was named pope, Francis reportedly doubled back to his church boarding house to personally cover his bill.
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, described his wardrobe selection as “definitely a choice of simplicity.” It was less clear, though, whether the new pope would continue to refuse the Vatican One limo. “Whether this habit will stick remains to be seen,” Lombardi said.
After a papacy that saw Benedict criticized as insensitive by some members of other faiths, Francis appeared to be trying to build early bridges. On Saturday, he dispatched a note to Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome.
“Trusting in the protection of the Most High, I strongly hope to be able to contribute to the progress of the relations that have existed between Jews and Catholics since Vatican Council II in a spirit of renewed collaboration and in service of a world that may always be more in harmony with the Creator’s will,” he wrote.
Francis brought with him an image of simplicity from Buenos Aires, where he was known for living in modest quarters and keeping his own appointment book. On Saturday, during his first encounter with the international news media as pope, he appeared surprisingly informal, seeming almost uncomfortable as the center of attention in his brilliant white robes.
As a select number of journalists and Vatican officials approached him for a blessing, he occasionally lifted them up from the traditional kneeling position in order to give them a hug and a kiss. Francis earned several rounds of laughter from the audience with his unscripted remarks. At other times, he appeared to move those present with his candor.
At one point, Francis, the first pope from the Jesuit order, joked that some had suggested he should embrace the title of Clement XV as revenge against Clement XIV, an 18th-century pope who had repressed the Jesuits.
In other unscripted remarks, he directly addressed the lack of clarity over his selection of Francis as his papal name. He noted that many wanted to know whether he had named himself after Saint Francis de Sales, Saint Francis Xavier or Saint Francis of Assisi.
As his selection became more and more likely during the conclave last week, the pope explained, he had been seated next to a dear friend, Cardinal Claudio Hummes, a Brazilian archbishop emeritus.
“When the matter became dangerous, he comforted me,” the pope told the news media. And when it became clear a new pope had been chosen, Hummes “embraced me and kissed me and said: ‘Don’t forget the poor.’ And that struck me. The poor. Immediately, I thought of Saint Francis of Assisi. Francis was a man of peace, a man of poverty, a man who loved and protected creation.”
So, the new pope said, he took the name after Saint Francis of Assisi to show “how I would love a church that is poor and for the poor.”
Jason Horowitz and Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.