VATICAN CITY – Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope Wednesday, becoming the first pontiff from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium. He chose the name Francis, associating himself with the humble 13th century Italian preacher who lived a life of poverty.
Looking stunned, Francis shyly waved to the crowd of more than 100,000 people who packed a rain-soaked St. Peter’s Square for the announcement, marveling that the cardinals needed to look to “the end of the earth” to find a bishop of Rome.
In choosing a 76-year-old pope, the cardinals clearly decided that they didn’t need a vigorous, young pope who would reign for decades, but rather a seasoned, popular and humble pastor who would draw followers to the faith and help rebuild a church stained by scandal.
The voting cardinals overcame deep divisions about the future of the church to select the 266th pontiff in a remarkably fast, five-ballot conclave.
Francis asked for prayers for himself, and for retired Pope Benedict XVI, whose stunning resignation paved the way for the conclave that brought the first Jesuit to the papacy. Francis also spoke by phone with Benedict after his election and plans to see him in the coming days, the Vatican said.
“Brothers and sisters, good evening,” Francis said to wild cheers in his first public remarks as pontiff from the external loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica.
“The duty of the conclave was to appoint a bishop of Rome, and it seems to me that my brother cardinals went to fetch him at the end of the world. But here I am. Thank you for the welcome.”
President Obama extended warm wishes to Francis on behalf of the American people, noting his trailblazing 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 2,000 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.”
In one of his first acts as pope, Francis this morning planned to visit Benedict at the papal retreat of Castel Gandolfo south of Rome.
The speed with which he was elected pope indicates that – even though he is 76 and has slowed down from the effects of having a lung removed as a teenager – he still had the trust of cardinals to do the job.
After announcing “Habemus papam” – “We have a pope!” – a cardinal standing on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica on Wednesday revealed the identity of the new pontiff, using his Latin name, and announced he would be called Francis.
The longtime archbishop of Buenos Aires is the son of middle-class Italian immigrants and is known as a humble man who denied himself the luxuries that previous Buenos Aires cardinals enjoyed.
He often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina’s capital. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
Catholics are still buzzing over his speech last year accusing fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.
In a lifetime of teaching and leading priests in Latin America, which has the largest share of the world’s Catholics, Bergoglio has also shown a keen political sensibility, as well as the kind of self-effacing humility that fellow cardinals value highly, according to his official biographer, Sergio Rubin.
The new pope, who as a teenager lost a lung to infection, showed that humility Wednesday, saying that before he blessed the crowd he wanted their prayers for him and then he bowed his head amid the silence from the crowd.
“Good night, and have a good rest,” he said before going back into the palace.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York gave an inside glimpse into the drama of the conclave in his talk at the American seminary.
When the tally reached the necessary 77 votes to make Bergoglio pope, Dolan said, the cardinals erupted in applause. And when he accepted the momentous responsibility thrust upon him – “there wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” the American cardinal recounted.
After the princes of the church had congratulated the new pope one by one, other Vatican officials wanted to do the same, but Francis preferred to go outside and greet the throngs of faithful. “Maybe we should go to the balcony first,” Dolan recalled the pope as saying.
Francis will celebrate his first Mass as pope in the Sistine Chapel today, and will be installed officially as pope Tuesday, according to the Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi.
Lombardi, also a Jesuit, said he was particularly stunned by the election given that Jesuits typically shun positions of authority in the church, instead offering their work in service to those in power.
But Lombardi said that in accepting the election, Francis must have felt it “a strong call to service,” an antidote to all those who speculated that the papacy was about a search for power.
In an interesting twist the Jesuits were expelled from all of the Americas in the mid-18th century. Now, a Latin American Jesuit has been elected head of the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church.
Tens of thousands of people who braved cold rain to watch the smokestack atop the Sistine Chapel jumped in joy when white smoke poured out a few minutes past 7 p.m. as the bells of St. Peter’s Basilica and churches across Rome pealed.
After what seemed like an unending wait of more than an hour, they cheered again when the doors to the loggia opened. The cheers became deafening when Bergoglio’s name was announced.
“I can’t explain how happy I am right now,” said Ben Canete, a 32-year-old Filipino, jumping up and down in excitement.
Elected on the fifth ballot, Francis was chosen in one of the fastest conclaves in years, remarkable given there was no clear front-runner going into the vote and that the church had been in turmoil following the upheaval unleashed by Benedict’s surprise resignation.