Media shy pope enters media 'lion's den'

RIO DE JANEIRO - Pope Francis admits he dislikes interviews, but the media-shy pontiff mingled with the army of journalists following him on his trip to Brazil, asking them to pray for him.

The 76-year-old Argentine, making his maiden trip abroad as pope, met with the traveling press corps on the back of his Alitalia papal plane on his way to Rio de Janeiro for a Roman Catholic youth event.

The pope compared himself to the prophet Daniel, who survived after being thrown into a lion's den.

"I was a little sad like the prophet Daniel in the lion's den because I saw that you weren't ferocious," Francis joked to the 70 journalists before greeting each one of them personally.

"Here, I am in the midst of lions," he quipped after the dean of the Vatican press corps, Mexican television journalist Valentina Alazraki Crastich, made a short speech to welcome the pope.

The pope apologised for not wanting to give a press conference or even answer questions that would have been given to him in advance, like his predecessor, the retired pope Benedict XVI.

"It's true, I don't give interviews. But I don't know why! I can't, that's the way it is. For me it's a little difficult to do," he admitted.

He then asked the media to "collaborate" with him "for the good of society, the young, the elderly, the two together."

The pope delivered an impassioned defence of the young unemployed and the elderly, warning society against marginalising the two groups.

He warned that the global crisis risked creating a "generation without work" while old people face a "culture of rejection." The pope, who has complained in the past about leaks of private conversations, took the time to meet and listen to each reporter and photographer, something his predecessors never did.

He blessed the rosary of one journalist, received a Brazilian flag from another and did the sign of the cross on the foreheads of some of them.

Pope Francis capped each encounter with a request: "I ask you to pray for me."