VATICAN CITY -- Pope Francis drew 300,000 people to his first Sunday blessing in St. Peter's Square Sunday, receiving wide support for his simplicity of speech and humble gestures.
Crowds roared and cheered "Long live the pope!" as soon as Francis appeared at the window of his papal study. "Brothers and sisters, good day to you," the pope said.
The pope also celebrated Mass at the Church of Sant'Anna inside the Vatican Sunday, where he greeted every churchgoer, kissing children and hugging friends. Only feet away was a massive crowd of pilgrims, cheering behind barricades.
After his Mass, a member of his staff tried to usher him into a waiting car, but Pope Francis looked at his watch. Like a rock star surrounded by anxious bodyguards, he walked toward the crowd and touched a sea of hands stretching out to greet him.
He began the noon blessing reading from his notes, but soon put them aside. He told of how he received a "lesson" on forgiveness from a humble old woman in Buenos Aires, where he was archbishop.
"She told me that the Lord forgives everything," Francis said, "that if the Lord didn't forgive everything, then the world wouldn't exist." He then joked: "Granny, I asked her, did you study at the Gregorian University?" The crowd laughed.
Flags from Latin America waved above a sea of believers. Pilgrims spilled outside St. Peter's Square and into the main avenue, watching Pope Francis from big-screen televisions.
"I really like that he has a sense of humor, like all Latinos," said Irma Lopez, a Salvadoran who has been living in Rome for 23 years. "He's a very simple and humble person and he spoke in Italian with a Latino accent, which for us is really special," she said.
"It was such an incredible experience, kind of a humbling moment," said Christopher Hayes, a student from Wichita, Kan.
Diana Dominguez is an Argentine who went against Pope Francis' request, as he asked his fellow countrymen not to travel to Rome and instead give the money to the poor.
"For me, it was just a bus ride," said Dominguez, who lives near Rome. "Every reflection he makes is so profound, he's a pope that practices what he preaches."
From day one of his papacy, he showed signs of a humble lifestyle, such as riding around in a modest sedan instead of the usual Vatican Mercedes-Benz.
As pope, he paid a pending hotel bill from his previous life. He then suggested his new papal apartment could better be used to house 300 people.
"Maybe some might think that his humbleness and sensitivity conceals a weak personality, but this would be a grave conceptual mistake," said Julio Perotti, news editor for the Argentine newspaper La Voz del Interior.
As a newsman who followed Pope Francis for years in Argentina, Perotti is convinced that Francis is already giving a lasting lesson on how the Catholic Church should reach out to its flock.
While observers in Rome are in awe at the radical change of style from the intellectual Benedict XVI to the pastoral approach of Pope Francis, experts from Argentina say this is just a continuation of his work in Latin America.
"I've known him for 20 years and he's always insisted on the themes of truth and mercy," said Bishop Eduardo Garcia, who in 2003 was appointed in Buenos Aires by then Cardinal Bergoglio and attended the Angelus on Sunday. "God gave us Argentines a pastor, and now we are giving the Church a pope," he said.
Pope Francis takes the reins of the Catholic Church at a time of struggle amid accusations of sex abuse by priests in several continents, and money laundering through the Vatican bank. In a conclusive remark before the ritual prayer on Sunday, the pope said, "Don't forget that God never tires of forgiving, if we don't get tired of asking for forgiveness."
The crowd prayed. "Have a good Sunday," said the pope. "Enjoy lunch," he said.