Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected pope Friday, becoming the first pontiff from Latin America and taking the name Pope Francis. He was named the 266th pope Wednesday, succeeding Benedict XVI as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and inheriting a global church that is growing in some parts of the world but faces serious challenges at home and abroad.
With a puff of white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel and to the cheers of thousands of rain-soaked faithful, a gathering of Catholic cardinals picked a new pope.
He is also the first non-European leader of the church in more than 1,000 years. Bergoglio, 76-years-old, was elected by his fellow cardinals in their fifth round of voting, securing a two-thirds majority just 24 hours after their conclave began in the magnificent precincts of the Sistine Chapel. He took the papal name Francis I.
Appearing on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica a short time later, the new pope led a prayer for his predecessor, Benedict XVI
The speed of the selection — only a few hours longer than it took the last conclave to choose Benedict in 2005 — showed that the cardinals quickly coalesced behind a candidate despite reports of increasing divisions among the cardinals making the choice.
“I would like to thank you for your embrace,” said the new pope, dressed in white, speaking from the white balcony on St. Peter’s Basilica as thousands of the faithful cheered joyously below.
“Habemus papam!,” members of the crowd shouted in Latin, waving umbrellas and flags. “We have a pope!” Others cried “Viva il Papa!”
“It was like waiting for the birth of a baby, only better, ” said a Roman man. A child sitting atop his father’s shoulders waved a crucifix.
Vatican watchers speculated over possibly opposing camps that wanted a charismatic, pastoral figure to spread the Christian gospel across the world, or a more managerial leader capable of purging the Vatican bureaucracy of dysfunction and alleged corruption.
Tens of thousands of people waiting in the rain in St. Peter’s Square burst into cheers and screams of joy when white smoke poured out of the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel, signaling a successful vote.
“Huge emotions,” said Claudio Santini, a lawyer from Rome who stood in a bowler hat in the square. “It’s not important where the pope is from, just that he can travel into people’s hearts.”
The election came after two rounds of balloting in a morning session. The 115 voting cardinals reconvened about 4:30 p.m. (11:30 a.m. Eastern) to vote up to two more times before either electing a new pope or adjourning for the day.
The Vatican will now decide which day to install the new pontiff. Though such ceremonies have traditionally fallen on Sunday, the Vatican’s spokesman said that Tuesday, Feb. 19, was a strong possibility because it is the feast day of Joseph, the patron saint of the church.