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Pope shows common touch with hat-change, Messi shirt

Francis boosts image as man of the people

17 April, 18:27
Pope shows common touch with hat-change, Messi shirt (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Vatican City, April 17 - Pope Francis continued to show his common touch at Wednesday's general audience with an impromptu hat-change, an enthusiastic reception of a replica shirt of Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi, and a fresh bout of children-kissing.

Since his election on March 13, the Argentine pope has gained plaudits for his genial and approachable style and the humility that marked his namesake St Francis of Assisi, snubbing many of the perks and trappings of office.

He has also been credited with making the papacy less lofty and closer to the people than his somewhat shy and diffident predecessor Benedict XVI did - despite virtually no doctrinal differences between the pair.

The new pope, elected after Benedict became the first pontiff in 700 years to voluntarily abdicate, has already formed a committee of advisors to reform an allegedly dysfunctional Curia, the Church's central management.

According to Rome's La Repubblica daily, Francis is also set on making sure the Church meddles less in Italian politics.

The Silence of the Bishops in the Presidential Race, the Interventionist Era Ends with Bergoglio, read a headline in Wednesday's edition, using the pope's surname as archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires.

The left-leaning daily highlighted that the Italian Bishops' Conference (CEI) had not supported any of the touted candidates, despite some being "thoroughbred Catholics" with credentials for dealing with Italy's economic and social woes. Instead, CEI head Angelo Bagnasco has restricted himself to repeated calls to break the stalemate 50 days after an inconclusive general election and "tackle the problems of the Italian people, who can't cope any more".

Doctrinally, however, Francis has so far been just as staunch a traditionalist as Benedict.

Just this week the Vatican said the new pope would continue the Church's critical position on the majority of American nuns for deviating from official Catholic doctrine.

Gerhard Mueller, prefect of Church orthodoxy watchdog Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, met Monday with directors from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which represents more than 80% of American nuns.

In April last year the LCWR was chided in a Vatican report for allegedly promoting "radical feminist themes" and devoting too much time to social justice while remaining unacceptably quiet on the Church's opposition to birth control and same-sex marriage.

Mueller said he recently discussed the report with the pope, "who reaffirmed its conclusions and the reform plan for LCWR".

The reforms, which included getting the group's statutes and by-laws in line with official Vatican doctrine, have been put off by LCWR leaders, who have cited a need to have a further ecclesial dialogue with the Holy See.

Francis is also known to have the same stiff position on abortion, gay rights and other ethical issues as his German predecessor.

But their personal styles could not be more different - as shown again on Wednesday. First, Francis swapped his white cap for another offered by a worshipper in St Peter's Square and kept it on through the general audience.

During his tour of the flock in the square, in which he kissed and caressed countless kids, the pope paused at a certain point to receive the white cap, being proffered by someone in the crowd. Francis immediately took his own cap off of his head, gave it to the person - who was beyond the barricade - and put the new cap on his head.

The pope kept it in place for the duration of the general audience.

Shortly afterwards the pope was visibly happy to get a soccer shirt with his countryman Messi's name on it from another group of well-wishers.

The soccer-loving pope appeared very enthusiastic about the gift, a No.10 Barcelona replica shirt with four-time world player of the year Messi's name on it.

As Buenos Aires archbishop, Francis was an open fan of one of the Argentine capital's clubs, San Lorenzo, and he still follows their fortunes form afar.

The pope has still not moved into a specially appointed deluxe apartment in the Vatican, preferring to stay in St Martha's House, a spartan residence where he and the other cardinals stayed during the March conclave.

Earlier this week he took the lift everyone else uses up to his floor, rather than using the special 'papal elevator' installed there. Adding to his image of man of the people are Francis's long-ago experiences of dancing the tango with a girlfriend and working as a night-club bouncer.

Some say he may rival the beloved and soon-to-be-canonised Polish pope, John Paul II, a former actor, in his gift for reaching out in just the right way.