Vatican City: In a surprise development, the College of Cardinals on Wednesday elected a new Pope from Argentina, or "the end of the earth" as described by the winner Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Bergoglio, who took the name of Francis, has the primary responsibility of resurrecting a church and faith in crisis. Francis is the first non-European Pontiff since the Middle Ages.
Cardinal Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires who has spent nearly his entire career in Argentina, was a fast and fitting choice for the most unpredictable papal succession — start to finish — in at least six centuries, reports a leading news agency.
He is the first Pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit and the first named Francis, after St Francis of Assisi, the humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor. The last non-European Pope was Syria`s Gregory III from 731-41.
"You know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome," the new Pontiff said as he waved shyly to the tens of thousands who braved a cold rain in St Peter`s Square. "It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth, but here we are. Thank you for the welcome."
The 76-year-old Bergoglio, said to have finished second when Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, was chosen on just the fifth ballot to replace the first Pontiff to resign in 600 years. In the past century, only Benedict, John Paul I in 1978 and Pius XII in 1939 were faster.
Francis` election elated Latin Americans, who number 40 percent of the world`s Catholics but have long been underrepresented in the Church leadership. On Wednesday, drivers honked their horns in the streets of Buenos Aires and television announcers screamed with elation at the news.
"It`s a huge gift for all of Latin America. We waited 20 centuries. It was worth the wait," said Jose Antonio Cruz, a Franciscan friar at the St Francis of Assisi church in the colonial Old San Juan district in Puerto Rico. "Everyone from Canada down to Patagonia is going to feel blessed."
The new Pontiff brings a common touch. The son of middle-class Italian immigrants, he denied himself the luxuries that previous cardinals in Buenos Aires enjoyed. He lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited slums that ring Argentina`s capital.
He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the Church.
"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," President Barack Obama said in a statement.
Huge task ahead
As the 266th Pope, Francis inherits a Catholic Church in turmoil, beset by the clerical sex abuse scandal, internal divisions and dwindling numbers in parts of the world where Christianity had been strong for centuries.
While Latin America still boasts the largest bloc of Catholics on a single continent, it has faced competition from aggressive evangelical churches that have chipped away at strongholds like Brazil, where the number of Catholics has dropped from 74 percent of the population in 2000 to 65 percent today.
Francis is sure to bring the Church closer to the poverty-wracked region, while also introducing the world to a very different type of Pope, whose first words were a simple, "Brothers and sisters, good evening."
He asked for prayers for himself, and for Benedict, whose stunning resignation paved the way for his election.
"I want you to bless me," Francis said in his first appearance from the balcony of St Peter`s Basilica, asking the faithful to bow their heads in silent prayer.
Francis spoke by phone with Benedict, who has been living at the papal retreat in Castel Gandolfo, and told cardinals he plans to visit the retired pontiff on Thursday, according to US Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The visit is significant because Benedict`s resignation has raised concerns about potential power conflicts emerging from the peculiar situation of having a reigning Pope and a retired one.
Earlier Wednesday, shouts of joy went up from the throng huddled under a sea of umbrellas when plumes of white smoke poured out of the copper chimney atop the Sistine Chapel a few minutes past 7 pm. "Habemus Papam!" — "We have a pope!" — they chanted as the bells pealed in St Peter`s Basilica and churches across Rome.
After what seemed like an endless wait of more than an hour, they cheered again when the doors to the loggia opened and a cardinal stepped out and revealed the identity of the new Pontiff, using his Latin name, then announced he would be called Francis.
In choosing to call himself Francis, the new Pope was associating himself with the much-loved Italian saint from Assisi known as a symbol of peace, poverty and simplicity. St Francis was born to a wealthy family but renounced his wealth and founded the Franciscan order of friars; he wandered about the countryside preaching to the people in very simple language.
He was so famed for his sanctity that he was canonized just two years after his death in 1226.
St Francis Xavier is another important namesake. One of the 16th-century founders of the Jesuit order, Francis Xavier was a legendary missionary who spread the faith as far as India and Japan — giving the new Pope`s name further resonance in an age when the Church is struggling to maintain its numbers.
(With Agency inputs)