Now media gets the papal charm offensive

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The new pontiff broke with plenty of traditions at his first press conference

Vatican City

It was his first audience since being elected, and for the first time in history the new Pope had invited... not the people of Rome, not the faithful, but the press. About 3,000 of us piled into the vast papal audience hall off St Peter's Square as the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics made his first appearance there.

If that sounds as though he was inviting us to give him a grilling, however, think again. That's not how things work here at the Vatican, where even to put a question to the Pope's official spokesman you have to submit your query in writing, at least an hour before a press briefing begins. Popes don't exactly give open access, and this one doesn't look likely to be starting any revolutions in that direction.

He does, though, look and sound very different from his predecessor – and the reason for throwing the audience hall open to the media was clearly to make precisely that point. When Benedict XVI toured Britain in 2010 I was part of the press corps that travelled with him; I saw him close up day after day. And Francis yesterday was chalk to his cheese.

To start with, there was the body language. The new man has charisma. He goes off brief: he has his notes, of course, but he's not afraid to look up from the page, to engage with his audience, to tell a joke. Benedict kept his eyes on his text, so that even when the words he was saying were interesting, they tended to come across as flat and wooden.

The big story the new pontiff had for us yesterday – told in a voice that was strong and clear in contrast to Benedict's sometimes wispy tones – was why he decided, when the conclave elected him last Wednesday night, to call himself Francis. Apparently as his tally reached the essential two-thirds majority, the emeritus Cardinal of Sao Paolo leant across to him and said something that made a deep impression: "Don't forget the poor." And this, said the former Cardinal Bergoglio, made him think of St Francis of Assisi, champion of the poor and now his namesake.

If it had been a risk to make the world's press one of his first ports of call, yesterday's event seemed to have paid off for Francis. PR, he seems to have realised, does matter – especially in view of the paedophile scandals that have rocked the Catholic church over recent months and years. If part of clearing up the church's act is charming the media, he struck gold: no conventional press conference ever saw the near-adulation that was at times a feature of this one.

However, if the audience gave the impression that everything is rosy in Francis's garden, it's not quite the whole truth. Since Cardinal Bergoglio's election, criticism has surfaced – as it did during the 2005 conclave, when he was seen as a serious contender to the throne of St Peter – of his role during Argentina's years of rule by a military junta. Did he or did he not fail to protect two Jesuit priests – members of his own order – who were abducted and tortured for five months at a naval base?

Damaging headlines for the Catholic church have traditionally been ignored in Rome, until they could be ignored no more: but this time, the Curia's media men have acted quickly. Fr Federico Lombardi (another Jesuit, and the papal press spokesman) said the Pope had, contrary to these stories, tried to protect many people during the years of military dictatorship.

On other fronts, there was less to worry about. When a woman came forward to say she had been his sweetheart, things could have been tricky. But it turned out the "relationship" had happened when the pair were just 12 – and the then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, son of a railway worker, had told his pre-teen love that if she wouldn't marry him, he'd join the priesthood instead.

At yesterday's audience, it was pretty clear that young man made the right career move. Less than 72 hours into the job, he looked so relaxed you'd have been forgiven for thinking he'd been doing it for years rather than days. And all the indications, from eschewing the papal red shoes to slipping out of the Vatican incognito on his second day in office to visit a friend in hospital, suggest a man in touch with reality. He's already getting a cautious thumbs-up from the faithful – although the true test will come when we find out whether he really can curb the powers of the Curia, and finally reassure the world that the appalling fallout over paedophilia is finally at an end.

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