VATICAN CITY – The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church broke Europe’s centuries-long hold on the papacy Wednesday, electing Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th pope.
The choice, on the second day of deliberations by a papal conclave, opened a direct connection to the Southern Hemisphere at a critical juncture when secularism and competing faiths are depleting the church’s ranks around the world and dysfunction is eroding its authority in Rome.
Bergoglio, who took the name Francis, the first pope in history to do so, is widely believed to have been the runner-up in the 2005 conclave, which yielded Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI.
As the third consecutive non-Italian pope after the Polish John Paul II and the German Benedict, Francis seems to have ended the era of Italian dominance of the papacy.
Francis is a pope of firsts. He chose a name never before used in the church’s 2,000-year history, signaling to Vatican analysts that he wants a new beginning for the faith.
“It’s a genius move,” Marco Politi, a papal biographer and veteran Vatican watcher, said of the choice of Bergoglio. “It’s a non-Italian, non-European, not a man of the Roman government. It’s an opening to the Third World, a moderate. By taking the name Francis, it means a completely new beginning.”
“It’s highly significant for what Francis means,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman. “It means that he is here to serve.”
But for many, Bergoglio’s country of origin is the first that matters most for the church.
“We know how longed-for this was by the Catholics in Latin America,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman. “This is a great response to this anticipation.”
That reaction was palpable in St. Peter’s Square as Bergoglio came to the balcony and, in his Argentine-accented Italian, addressed the crowd, which greeted him with cheers of “Viva il papa!”
“It’s the first pope from Latin America!” said Horacio Pintos, from Uruguay, who held his daughter on his shoulders. “It’s an opening to a continent that is full of faithful that has been ignored,” interrupted Carlos Becerril, 35, from Mexico. “We will now all be heard more strongly.”
President Obama extended warm wishes to Francis on behalf of the American people, noting his trail-blazing status as the first pontiff from the New World.
“As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than two thousand years – that in each other we see the face of God,” Obama said in a statement.
“As the first pope from the Americas, his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day.”
Bergoglio, 76, the first Jesuit pope, spent nearly his entire career in Argentina, overseeing churches and shoe-leather priests, The Associated Press reported. He has long specialized in the kind of pastoral work considered an essential skill for the next pope.
Bergoglio’s election was announced by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the church’s most senior cardinal in the order of deacons, who declared “habemus papam” and spoke the name of the new pope.
But his words were barely audible, and there was initial confusion over the identity of the new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
In St. Peter’s Square, the election elicited exultation from Latin Americans. But many of the faithful seemed unfamiliar with their new leader.
“We don’t know a lot about him,” said Silvia Napolitano, 62, as she walked out of St. Peter’s Square with a friend. “It seems he has a very direct connection with the people. He seems simple. And we like Argentines; they’re open and sociable. You can tell from the way he speaks with that soft Italian accent.”
Gabriel Lopez-Betanzos, 29, an American seminarian in Rome, also reserved any conclusions. “I’m a scientist,” he said. “I need more data.”
White smoke rose over the Sistine Chapel earlier Wednesday evening, signaling that the 115 voting cardinals had made their choice. Crowds erupted in joy in St. Peter’s Square and waited eagerly for the presentation of the then-undisclosed new pope.
Bergoglio subsequently was revealed to the world on the balcony after entering the room of tears, donning white papal vestments and praying with the cardinals who elected him.
As they awaited the announcement, thousands of people ran up the Via della Conciliazione, the broad avenue leading to St. Peter’s Square, holding umbrellas above their heads. A line of Polish nuns in white clasped each other’s hands. Clusters of students jumped up and down, and roars of joy passed over the sea of people like waves.
“Huge emotions,” said Claudio Santini, a lawyer from Rome. “It’s not important where the pope is from, just that he can travel into people’s hearts.”
The election apparently came in the fifth round of balloting. Lombardi said no pope since Pius XII in 1939 has been chosen before the fourth ballot.
To be chosen, a candidate had to win the support of at least two-thirds of the 115 voting-age cardinals. Because no one bloc of cardinals – organized around passport or priorities – was large enough on its own to generate the requisite 77 votes, a candidate needed to consolidate support from a cross-section of electors.
But since consensus apparently remained elusive, the cardinals looked to the less familiar names in their college, which is what happened when John Paul II was chosen in 1978.
Francis is the first non-European pope since Gregory III, elected in 731.