VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis was to meet the world’s press on Saturday at the dawn of an already tradition-breaking leadership for a troubled Catholic Church, after the Vatican rejected claims he did nothing to save lives during Argentina’s “Dirty War”.
The special audience at 1000 GMT was being billed by the Vatican as part of the greater openness that has characterised the first days in office of the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first pope from Latin America.
The 76-year-old pontiff has displayed an informal style that contrasts sharply with that of his more academic predecessor Benedict XVI.
Under the simple slogan of “walk, build, confess” and speaking in a folksy Italian, he has urged Catholic leaders to shun worldly glories and lead a spiritual renewal in the Church that will reach “the ends of the earth”.
The son of an Italian emigrant railway worker, he has warned them that without action the Church could end up becoming a “castle of sand” and just a charity with no spiritual foundation.
The Catholic Church has been rocked in recent years by multiple scandals including thousands of cases of abuse of children by paedophile priests, stretching back decades, and intrigue in the Vatican bureaucracy.
Catholics are also abandoning churches in huge numbers in an increasingly secularized West.
A moderate conservative in Argentina where he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis is unlikely to change any of the fundamental tenets of Catholic doctrine but he could push for more social justice and a friendlier faith.
Vatican experts have said his priorities will also include reforming the administration of the Church and the Vatican bank, which is being investigated in a money laundering case.
The Vatican on Friday rejected claims that Pope Francis had failed to protect two Jesuit priests who were kidnapped and tortured by Argentina’s brutal military junta (1976-1983), and said he had in fact helped save lives.
The Vatican said the accusations were “defamatory” and “anti-clerical”.
Bergoglio has been criticized by leftist Argentinians for his actions at a time when he was head of the country’s Jesuits but not yet a bishop.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said Bergoglio in fact “did a lot to protect people during the dictatorship” in which 30,000 died or disappeared.
But the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo organization, founded in 1977 to help locate children kidnapped under the junta, accused the pope of failing to speak out against the former military rulers.
“He has never spoken of the problem of people who had disappeared under dictatorial rule, and 30 years have already passed since our return to democracy,” said Estela Carlotto, whose daughter Laura was abducted and killed during the military era.
There was more evidence Friday of the new pope’s informal style when he visited Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mejia in a Rome hospital, a day after the 90-year old suffered a heart attack.
He spent 20 minutes with the cardinal before blessing the hands of the cardiologist treating him.
“It was amazing. He is really down to earth. He makes you feel at ease immediately,” the doctor, Marco Miglionico, told reporters.
Francis chatted warmly with staff and also blessed seriously ill patients before praying at the hospital’s chapel.
The new pontiff’s inauguration mass will take place on Tuesday – the Feast of St Joseph, the patron saint of the universal church.
He has urged the faithful in his native Argentina not to travel to Italy for the mass but rather to give the money the trip would have cost to charity. Nonetheless, heads of state from all over the world are expected to be present, while more than a million people are expected to throng Rome.
The new pontiff is also due to meet Benedict, who last month became the first pope to resign for 700 years, in the coming days.
Francis fans have already begun snapping up rosary beads and postcards adorned with his face at souvenir shops in the Vatican and New York’s Bice restaurant has created a new dish — barbecued steak pasta — in homage to the pope’s Argentinian and Italian roots.
His election is being seen as a nod to the Church’s power in Latin America, which is home to 40 percent of the world’s Catholics, while in Europe, its traditional power base, it is ageing and declining.