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Pope Francis honeymoon continues: Draws big crowds and new fans

Alessandra Tarantino / AP

Pope Francis waves to faithful as he is driven through the crowd in his popemobile during his weekly general audience in St. Peter Square at the Vatican, Wednesday, April 24, 2013. Writing on the banner in the background reads in Italian "We are not afraid".

ROME – More than one month since his election, Pope Francis is winning new fans and drawing big crowds to the Vatican.   

St. Peter's Square has been filled to capacity during the pope’s public events – like the Wednesday general audience and Sunday blessing. 

Vendors and shopkeepers have had swift sales of rosaries, candles, pens and even lighters carrying Francis' smiling face since his election. The demand for pope-related goods is even fueling the black market – earlier this week police in Milan seized a million items made in China carrying the image of the Pope illegally smuggled into the country.

Many Catholics, at least in Italy, have been won over by Francis’ humility. 

Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images

Pope Francis received a rosary from a young girl as he arrives for his weekly general audience at St Peter's square on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at the Vatican.

“He behaves like one of us, he is one of the people,” said 42-year-old Roberto Delantero, a devout Catholic and admirer of the Franciscan order. “He said he is infinitely small, just like Saint Francis called himself. It’s a nice break for the Catholic Church, which in recent years rose above the people.” 

“He is a man of the people, he doesn’t sit on a pedestal,” said Maya de Roo, a 32-year-old Dutch florist based in Rome who met Pope Francis after helping with the flowers arrangements in St. Peter’s Square for Easter Mass.

Of course, de Roo brought up a comparison to his predecessor, the now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

“After the mass, he came to thank us florists and he was looking at all of us in the eyes. It was clear he was happy to be with us. He was emanating a positive energy that I never felt with Benedict.”

Osservatore Romano / Reuters

Pope Francis receives Inter Milan captain Javier Zanetti's soccer jersey during their private audience at the Vatican on Thursday, April 25.

And while Francis hails from Buenos Aires, which is almost 7,000 miles away from Rome, Italians welcomed him as one of their own overnight. (Francis joked after his election, “the cardinals found me at the end of the world.”)  

His Italian roots – his parents come from the northern Italian Piedmont region – provided an instantaneous familiarity that was missing with Benedict, who was perceived as “too German” for many in Italy.

But that hasn’t stopped Francis, who is a big soccer fan, from connecting with some of fellow Argentine transplants. He had an “emotional” hour-long audience with Inter Milan’s captain Javier Zanetti, also originally from Buenos Aires, and received an autographed jersey from Barcelona star Lionel Messi, an Argentine considered the world's best player. 

The new pope is also winning fans stateside, as many as 84 percent of U.S. Catholics view him “favorably” according to a  Pew Research Center survey conducted at the end of March. That’s compared to just 67 percent of American Catholics who viewed his predecessor Pope Benedict favorably about three months into his papacy.

Small gestures
More than ethnicity and bloodline, his humility has impressed many. Through many gestures since his election, the new pope has showed an effort to live up to the name he took in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi, a saint renowned for renouncing the life of wealth he was born into for one of poverty. 

The list is long: he boarded the shuttle bus back to the basilica from the Sistine Chapel among other cardinals on the night he was elected, refusing to take the Vatican “limo” fit for a pope. He insisted on paying the small hotel he stayed in before entering the conclave after he was elected pope.

Dmitry Lovetsky / AP

A souvenir vendor sells portraits of Pope Francis at the Vatican on March 18, 2013.

Perhaps most shockingly of all, he has refused to move into the lavish papal apartment, allegedly saying, “you can fit 300 people here!” Instead, he has chosen to sleep in a simple room in Domus Santa Martha, the same hotel-style residence he stayed in during the conclave that elected him on March 13. 

The only people who might not be so impressed by his humbleness, ironically, may be the Vatican employees. The pope announced last week that the approximately $2,000 bonus workers at the Holy See traditionally receive every time a new pope is elected must go to the poor instead.

Related links:

NBC News coverage of Pope Francis

Pope Francis: Hypocrisy 'undermines Church's credibility'

'It was a sign': Lapsed Catholics lured back by Pope Francis

Riding in style: The evolution of the popemobile