Papal conclave elects Argentine cardinal as next pope

Cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church select Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as pope to succeed Benedict XVI.

Cardinal electors of the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday night selected Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the new pope to succeed Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and lead the church through a time of crisis.

Bergoglio chose the papal name Francis and is the first Jesuit pontiff, the first from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium.

"Brothers and sisters, good evening," Francis said to wild cheers to a crowd in St. Peter's Square in his first public remarks as pontiff.

"You know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome. It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the Earth. Thank you for the welcome," he said according to a translation by Reuters.

He thanked his predecessor and led the crowd in payer for him.

 He then continued:

"And now, let us start this journey, bishop and people, bishop and people, this journey of the Church of Rome, which leads all the Churches in charity, a journey of fraternity, of love, of trust among us.

"Let us always pray for us, one for the other, let us pray for the whole world, so that there may be a great fraternity. I hope that this journey of the Church that we begin today and which my cardinal vicar, who is here with me, will help me with, may be fruitful for the evangelization of this beautiful city."

Related: 10 interesting facts about Pope Francis

After a few seconds of silent prayer, he then delivered his blessing.

He concluded: "Good night and have a good rest" before going back into the palace.

Pope Francis' inaugural Mass will be held on Tuesday, the Vatican said.

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 U.S. 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.

U.S. President Barack Obama offered warm wishes to the new pope, saying the cardinals' choice speaks to the vitality of an increasingly important Latin America. In a statement, Obama called the new pope "a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us."

Bergoglio was chosen on the close of  second day of the conclave. Thick white smoke billowed from the chimney atop the Sistine Chapel and church bells rang at the Vatican, signaling to the world there is a new pontiff.

The crowd in St. Peter's Square cheered wildly, and more people streamed into the square upon learning of the development. Millions of people worldwide followed the procession of events on live television and on the Internet.

Bergoglio chose his papal name after Saint Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century reformer who lived in poverty and told followers, "Preach the Gospel always, if necessary use words." Choosing the name of one of Italy's patron saints also ties the new pope to Italy, the homeland of all popes of the past few centuries until 1978.

Bergoglio changed into his papal white cassock, got a pledge of loyalty from the cardinals, stopped and prayed in the Pauline Chapel for a few minutes before heading to the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square to greet the crowd. French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the protodeacon, announced, "Habemus Papam!" (Latin for "We have a pope") and then introduced him to the world in Latin.

Bergoglio, 76, has spent nearly his entire career at home in Argentina, overseeing churches and shoe-leather priests. The archbishop of Buenos Aires reportedly got the second-most votes after Joseph Ratzinger in the 2005 papal election, and he has long specialized in the kind of pastoral work that some say is an essential skill for the next pope. 

The selection of a new spiritual leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics came after the 115 cardinals in the conclave voted twice Wednesday morning in the Sistine Chapel following an inaugural vote Tuesday. They pledged in Latin to never reveal details of the secret ballot. A two-thirds majority — 77 votes — was needed to become pope. Black smoke spewed out from the makeshift chimney Tuesday night and earlier Wednesday, meaning no pope was selected in the initial rounds.

The German-born Benedict, 85, announced unexpectedly last month that he was stepping down, saying he no longer had the strength to lead the church. He was the first pope to resign since Gregory XII in 1415.

Click to see the world's Catholic population

Click to see the world's Catholic population

The selection process came amid more upheaval and uncertainty than the Catholic Church has seen in decades. There was no consensus front-runner going into the process, and no sense that one man has what it takes to fix the many problems.

The next pope will face a church in crisis. Benedict spent his eight-year pontificate trying to revive Catholicism amid the secular trends that have made it almost irrelevant in places like Europe, once a stronghold of Christianity. Clerical sex abuse scandals have soured many faithful on their church, and competition from rival evangelical churches in Latin America and Africa has drawn members away.

Closer to home, the next pope has a major challenge awaiting him inside the Vatican walls, after the leaks of papal documents in 2012 exposed ugly turf battles, allegations of corruption and even a plot purportedly orchestrated by Benedict's aides to out a prominent Italian Catholic editor as gay.

In a lifetime of teaching and leading priests in Latin America, which has the largest share of the world's Catholics, Bergoglio has shown a keen political sensibility as well as the kind of self-effacing humility that fellow cardinals value highly, says his official biographer, Sergio Rubin.

Bergoglio would likely encourage the church's 400,000 priests to hit the streets to capture more souls, Rubin said in an Associated Press interview. He is also most comfortable taking a low profile, and his personal style is the antithesis of Vatican splendor. "It's a very curious thing: When bishops meet, he always wants to sit in the back rows. This sense of humility is very well seen in Rome," Rubin said.

Bergoglio is known for modernizing an Argentine church that had been among the most conservative in Latin America.

He stands out for his austerity. As Argentina's top church official, he's never lived in the ornate church mansion in Buenos Aires, preferring a simple bed in a downtown room heated by a small stove on frigid weekends. For years, he took public transportation around the city and cooked his own meals.

The election of a pope is a centuries-old process. Since 1271, the church's highest-ranking clerics, the cardinals, have voted in a conclave — from the Latin “with a key” — that was instituted as a result of one of the longest papal vacancies in history, two years and nine months.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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