Pope Francis. (Dan Kitwood, Getty Images)
Marco della Cava, USA TODAY
ROME - The full impact of Pope Francis' unexpected rise from little-known cardinal to heralded pontiff was hammered home Sunday, as a crushing capacity crowd jammed St. Peter's Square for a 10-minute prayer.
"I'm pleased to greet you on Sunday, which is fitting as it is the day of the Lord," said Francis from the window of his papal apartment. Below him roared an estimated crowd of 150,000, filling the square as well as neighboring streets.
Francis' first public appearance since being elected last week helped kick the new pontificate into gear. Among the Buenos Aires native's other upcoming events is a meeting Monday with Argentine president Christina Fernandez, whom the conservative pope has criticized for her liberal stance on contraception and gay marriage.
Tuesday morning is Francis' installation Mass, which will be attended by world leaders including Vice President Joe Biden, who is Catholic. But perhaps the most-watched encounter will take place Saturday. That's when the pope is scheduled to travel to Castel Gandolfo outside Rome to meet with pope-emeritus Benedict, whose shocking resignation last month set last week's unexpected conclave in motion.
It remains unclear how quickly Pope Francis will move to tackle some of the Catholic Church's tough problems, from financial scandals to social issues. But what's clear is that, much like an incoming American president riding a wave of good feeling, he has the momentum of public support.
Before ending his brief appearance Sunday by saying the Hail Mary in Latin, the pope told the parable of an adulterous woman who isn't turned away by Jesus.
"God always has patience," he said in Italian. "We can always go back with a contrite heart."
Although she couldn't understand the content of his talk, the emotion of the moment got to Lucy Fanning of Pennington, N.J.
"This is ..." she said before fanning her face with her hand.
"I'm not even Catholic, I'm Protestant, but this is messing me up a bit," Fanning said, as her husband, Joe, a Catholic, smiled. The couple is escorting a group of private school Latin students around Italy.
"You can tell this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said Casey McGovern, 16, explaining the group's decision to brave the huge crowds only to get as far as a quarter-mile from St. Peter's. "It's his first address as pope to the people. You have to be here."
Countless other Romans agreed, choking the streets around the Vatican with baby carriages, dogs and bicycles as police officers struggled to keep order.
A half-hour before the pope's "Angelus," or public prayer, frantic faithful tried to make their way to the massive piazza in front of the basilica. One man yelled out at a well-dressed carabiniere officer, asking the best way to see the pope. "On TV," came the clipped reply.
Earlier Sunday morning, Pope Francis said Mass at the Church of St. Anna, which is reserved for employees of the Vatican and sits just inside its imposing walls.
Wearing the purple vestments of the liturgical season of Lent, Francis was at his disarming best, at one point urging parishioners to applaud for a man who worked with street kids in Uruguay, whom he invited to greet him near the altar.
"Pray for him," the pope intoned. "I don't know how he got here (to Rome), but I'll find out."
After Mass concluded, the pope stood just outside the small church's front doors greeting every exiting parishioner as onlookers, held beyond barricades, chanted "Francesco, Francesco, Francesco!"
Most of the churchgoers kissed his left hand; many did so speechless and with tears in their eyes. Others clearly knew the pope from his recent incarnation as Cardinal Jose Mario Bergoglio, and with them he smiled and chatted amiably as if at a party.
Not so relaxed were the pope's black-suited private security detail. As the pontiff made to leave, he unexpectedly walked over to the cheering masses behind the barricades to shake hands and kiss babies.
Such interactions recall the papacy of John Paul II, who especially early in his tenure took particular pleasure interacting with his flock. A 1981 assassination attempt in the middle of St. Peter's Square changed things overnight, and gave rise to the often joked-about, bulletproof glass-shrouded Popemobile.
During the height of Sunday's frenzy, the look on the security officers' faces was one of both deep concern as well as resignation. Clearly, this pope's populist nature will not be held back, and they will have to adjust in kind.