BERLIN — Political and religious leaders on Wednesday welcomed the election of Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the world’s first ever Latin American pope.
Argentina’s Congress interrupted its session after television stations broke off their programming to announce Bergoglio’s election as leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics.
“There is a new pope and he is an Argentine,” said Julian Dominguez, speaker of the lower house of the Argentinian Congress as Bergoglio confirmed his new title: Pope Francis.
President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, with whom Bergoglio has crossed swords in the past, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, avoided any reference to his origins.
“It is our wish for you to have, as you take on the leadership and guidance of the Church, a fruitful pastoral task regarding such major responsibilities for the sake of justice, equality, fraternity and peace for humanity,” she said in a brief letter.
Venezuela’s caretaker president Nicolas Maduro saw the hand of late leader Hugo Chavez in the choice of the conclave of cardinals.
“We know our commander ascended into those heights and is standing before Christ. He must have exerted some influence for a South American pope to be elected,” Maduro said.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, who was close to Bergoglio’s predecessor, said he was struck “by the simplicity” of the pope’s first public address, while outgoing Prime Minister Mario Monti stressed the pontiff’s Italian origins.
U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas were among other leaders to send congratulations.
Merkel, whose country produced Bergoglio’s predecessor, Benedict XVI, said she was “especially happy for the Christians of Latin America.” Obama said the Argentinian’s accession to the throne of St. Peter, showed “the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world” and said all Americans including millions of Hispanic Americans welcomed the “historic day.” Ban said that the church and the U.N. shared “many common goals” and that he hoped Pope Francis would continue Benedict’s efforts to promote “inter-faith dialogue.” Abbas invited Pope Francis to visit Bethlehem, birthplace of Jesus Christ.
World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder said the pope was “no stranger” to Jewish communities, adding he expected Francis to continue fighting anti-Semitism.
The cardinal had “always had an open ear for our concerns,” Lauder said.
Catholic leaders expressed joy and surprise at the election of a humble figure, whose choice of papal name pays homage to St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th century Italian friar who chose to live among the poor.
German Cardinal Joachim Meisner of Cologne said the choice of Bergoglio was a “surprise,” and was “completely different” from what he and other members of the conclave had envisioned.
The decision for Bergoglio came about gradually in discussion and in the succession of votes since the beginning of the week, he said.
“I believe that most of those who participated in the conclave reacted the same, that it was something we had not thought possible.
“He was a gift and has been warmly welcomed by us,” Meisner said.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who participated in the conclave in the Vatican and was himself considered a possible contender for the job, said his peers had made an “inspired choice.”
“As successor to Peter, our first pope, Pope Francis I stands as the figure of unity for all Catholics wherever they reside,” he said in a statement issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The National Bishops’ Conference of Brazil, which has the world’s biggest Catholic population, saw the winds of change blowing through the Vatican.
The election of a Latin American showed “the Church is opening up, that it is devoted to the whole Church and not just to Europe’s,” Leonardo Steiner, secretary-general of the conference said.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff congratulated Argentina for the election of Francis and looked forward to hosting the new pontiff in Rio de Janeiro during the World Youth Day in July.
“(As) the largest country in the number of Catholics, Brazil keenly followed the conclave and the election of the first Latin American pope,” Rousseff said.