A trusty spokesman helps pope's debut on world stage

VATICAN CITY - As Pope Francis starts out in the Vatican, following his historic election as Latin America's first pontiff, a trusty fellow Jesuit will be helping him broadcast his message - Father Federico Lombardi.

The head of the Vatican's press office under the recently retired Benedict XVI, Lombardi has so far kept his job and has shown evident enthusiasm over the new pontiff, underlining Francis's tradition-breaking style.

"We all participated with extreme emotion. We were struck by the many novelties," Lombardi said the day after cardinals elected the first Jesuit pope.

The 70-year-old press officer said it was "very strange" to have a pope who is a fellow Jesuit - a religious order once shunned by the Vatican.

In the lead-up to the conclave, Lombardi had been the star at press conferences for more than 5,000 journalists who descended on Rome for the event.

A reserved priest with blue eyes, Lombardi has amused journalists with his dry sense of humour and earned their gratitude with his untiring work, even setting off applause in the press office at times.

Ever since Benedict XVI announced on February 11 that he was stepping down as pontiff, Lombardi has faced a difficult task trying to explain the implications of the first papal resignation in seven centuries.

There was confusion over whether Benedict would continue to have the power of infallibility on doctrinal matters that popes have, or whether he could continue to wear his white papal cassock.

Always keeping his calm, the 70-year-old Lombardi fielded questions with his characteristic wit.

Infallibility, he said, was "rather associated with the post". What would the pope do immediately after his resignation? "Have dinner I suppose."

Lombardi spent a lot of time detailing particular aspects of the conclave - such as the white smoke that indicates a new pope has been chosen or the black smoke to signal no papal election.

Just before Pope Francis was elected on Wednesday, Lombardi moaned that he had been inundated by questions about how exactly the smoke was produced, and went on to list a series of chemicals.

The Vatican has tried to overhaul its image in recent years with a new web portal and even a Twitter account for Benedict XVI.

Lombardi is also the head of Vatican Radio, which has been a vital go-to source of information during this delicate papal transition.

Originally from the Piedmont region of northern Italy, Lombardi was ordained in 1972 and has also studied mathematics and theology.

It was during his work as a priest among Italian emigrants in Germany that he began writing for Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuits' magazine.

In July 2006 - just over a year after Benedict XVI's election - he took over the press office from Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a Spanish layman and member of the Opus Dei religious movement.

Markedly different from his authoritarian predecessor, Lombardi imposed his own style, mixing Jesuit subtlety and affability.

His baptism of fire came with the scandal over child abuse by paedophile priests.

He has tried to explain that the Vatican is gradually imposing new rules to end abuses.

Asked about the issue this week after accusations by an abuse victims' group that some cardinals covered up abuses, he said the claims were evidence of "negative prejudices".

But Lombardi last year was also one of the organisers of an unprecedented international conference hosted by the Pontifical Gregorian University on how to ensure such crimes by the clergy never happen again.

It is unclear whether the Argentine pope will keep Lombardi on in his role in the longer term - the custom is usually to change the head of the press office.

But one thing is clear - the modest Lombardi has no ambition for high clerical office.

On a trip to Beirut last year, some Lebanese journalists addressed him as "Cardinal".

He told them: "Not yet and I hope never!"

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