He offered the respects during an audience with the cardinals who elected him to succeed Benedict, whose resignation set in motion the extraordinary conclave that brought the first prelate from the New World and first Jesuit to the papacy.
Francis, 76, tripped and stumbled when he greeted the dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, at the start of the audience, but he recovered immediately.
Speaking at times off the cuff, Francis said Benedict had “lit a flame in the depths of our hearts that will continue to burn because it is fueled by his prayers that will support the church on its missionary path”.
“In these years of his pontificate, he enriched and invigorated the church with his magisterium, his goodness, guide, and faith,” Francis said. Pausing for effect, he added: “His humility and his gentleness.”
Francis has said he wants to visit Benedict at the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo where he has been living since Feb 28, when he became the first pope in 600 years to resign. No date has been set for the visit. Francis is due to be installed as pope on Tuesday.
The relationship between the two pontiffs has been the subject of intense speculation given the novelty of soon having a retired and reigning pope living side by side.
Some analysts have expressed concern about the influence Benedict and his loyalists might wield over the new pontificate, or worse how certain factions in the Church might try to undermine Francis’s authority by continuing to use Benedict as their reference point.
The presence of Arch-bishop Georg Gaenswein, Benedict’s closest aide, at all of Francis’s inaugural events has confirmed some crossover; Gaenswein is also the head of the papal household, meaning he has an important role to play in the transition and Francis’s day-to-day schedule.
Yesterday, he accompanied Francis to the papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace, which has been sealed since Feb 28. Francis opened the door, and Gaenswein hurried in to turn on the lights.
Meanwhile, Francis urged leaders of a Roman Catholic Church riven by scandal and crisis never to give in to discouragement, bitterness or pessimism but to keep focused on their mission.
Since his election on Wednesday, Francis has signalled a sharp change of style from his predecessor and has laid out a clear moral path for the 1.2bnmember Church, which is beset by scandals, intrigue, and strife. “Let us never give in to the pessimism, to that bitterness, that the devil places before us every day. Let us not give into pessimism and discouragement,” he told the cardinals who chose him.
The Vatican has strongly denied accusations by some critics in Argentina that Francis stayed silent during systematic human rights abuses by the former military dictatorship there.
Spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi told reporters the accusations “must be clearly and firmly denied”.
Critics of the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, allege he failed to protect priests who challenged the dictatorship during the 1976-1983 “dirty war”, and that he has said too little about the complicity of the Church during military rule.
Setting out a clear and forceful moral tone, Francis told the cardinals they must stick to the faith’s Gospel roots and shun modern temptations.