Rome, March 13 - Pope Francis started his first full day as the head of the Catholic Church on Thursday with a visit to Rome's Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major) Basilica. The Argentine pontiff, who was elected the first South American pope on Wednesday after just five votes at the conclave, prayed before a famous icon of the Virgin Mary called the Salus Populi Romani (Protectress of the Roman People). Father Ludovico Melo, a priest who prayed with the pope, said Francis spent around 30 minutes in St Mary Major, a papal basilica that is sometimes used by pontiffs. Francis also sang the Salve Regina hymn and spoke to people in the church to confess. "Mercy, mercy, mercy," the pope said, according to Melo. "You are confessors so be merciful with the souls. They need it". Pope Francis had the air of a man who has always been pontiff, another of the priests at the church said. "It seemed like he has always been pope," Father Elio Monteleone said of Francis, who visited the basilica dedicated to Mary less than 24 hours after he had been elected the new head of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. "He was not embarrassed or afraid. He greeted us all one by one. He said some words to each one of us. "He was very warm and very simple". After the visit the new pope went to a residence in central Rome where he had been staying before the conclave to collect his things. Francis is expected to receive cardinals, both electors who participated in the conclave and those who did not, on Friday, and meet journalists the day after. He will lead his first Angelus as pope in St Peter's Square on Sunday and the inaugural mass of his pontificate will take place on Tuesday. Francis was elected after Benedict stepped down last month saying he no longer had the mental and physical strength to continue in a role that is usually for life. The new pope took the name Francis to honour Saint Francis of Assisi, according to the Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan, one of the cardinals who took part in the conclave. There had been speculation that the pontiff may have become the first pope to take the name Francis as a tribute to Francis Xavier, a 16th-century Spanish saint and co-founder of the Jesuit order that the newly elected pope belongs to. "The pope told us that he chose the name Francis in honour of Francis of Assisi," Dolan told reporters. "St Francis took care of the poor and humble and this will be his job". Francis also showed he still had a good sense of humour after being elected pontiff, telling the cardinals who elected him "May God forgive you". The new head of the Catholic Church "brought the house down" with the comment when dining with cardinals after the conclave on Wednesday, according to Dolan. He also told the cardinals, "I hope you don't regret this later," Dolan told reporters at the North American College in Rome. Dolan, who was considered one of the favourites to become pope before the conclave, said Francis had "won our hearts" with his "beautiful sincerity, simplicity and humility". He added: "He kind of comes across as shy and reserved, doesn't he? "His voice is kind of conversational. He doesn't have a real booming voice, but he's a man of confidence and poise".