Pope mingles with the masses

Francis quickly establishes himself as people person

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VATICAN CITY — Walking up to crowds, shaking hands with surprised bystanders in the street, mixing his formal speeches with off-the-cuff remarks, Pope Francis stamped his own style on the papacy Sunday.

His humor and down-to-earth manner captivated those filling St. Peter's Square in Rome to overflowing, and he worked the crowd in a way that had to give his security staff palpitations. Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, in the square himself, estimated the crowd's size at 300,000.

"Brothers and sisters, "Buon giorno,'" Francis said in Italian in his first welcome from the window of the papal residence, setting an informal tone that has become the defining spirit of his young papacy.

Earlier Sunday, he made an impromptu appearance before the public from a side gate of the Vatican that startled passers-by and prompted cheers as he shook hands and kissed babies. Francis had just finished celebrating Mass and delivering a six-minute homily — brief by church standards -- in the Vatican's tiny parish church, St. Anna, when he walked outside to greet parishioners one by one, just as an ordinary pastor does after weekly services.

Francis started speaking at the window even before the stroke of noon — the appointed time for the weekly papal address. The windows of the papal study in the Apostolic Palace were opened for the first time since Francis' predecessor, Benedict XVI, gave his last Sunday blessing on Feb. 24. Four days later, Benedict went into retirement, the first pontiff to do so in nearly 600 years.

Francis, the first pope from Latin America, was elected Wednesday and has been staying in a hotel on the Vatican's premises until the papal apartment is ready.

"The pope is down-to-earth. He is a people person and it is amazing," said Emanuel Anatsui from Britain. "He is going to do wonderfully for the church."

After Mass, Francis again put his security detail to the test as he waded into an intersection just outside St. Anna's Gate. Francis stepped up to the crowd, grasping outstretched hands. The atmosphere was so casual that several people even gripped Francis on the shoulder.

"Francesco! Francesco!" children shouted his name in Italian. As he patted one little boy on the head, he asked "Are you a good boy?" and the child nodded.

"Are you sure?" the pope quipped.