VATICAN CITY The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church broke Europe’s millennium-long stranglehold on the papacy and astonished the Catholic world Wednesday, electing Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th pope.
The choice, on the second day of deliberations by a conclave in the Sistine Chapel, opened a direct connection to the Southern Hemisphere at a critical juncture when secularism and competing faiths are depleting the church’s ranks around the world, and dysfunction is eroding its authority in Rome.
“The duty of the conclave was to appoint a bishop of Rome,” said Bergoglio, 76, who took the name Francis, the first pope in history to do so. “And it seems to me that my brother cardinals went to fetch him at the end of the world. But here I am.”
Bergoglio is widely believed to have been the runner-up in the 2005 conclave, which yielded Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Last month, Benedict became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign.
Shortly after his election, Francis called Benedict, now known as pope emeritus, with whom he will meet Thursday. As the third consecutive non-Italian pope, after the Polish John Paul II and the German Benedict, Francis seems to have ended the era of Italian dominance of the papacy.
Francis, who will be officially installed Tuesday in a Mass, is a pope of firsts. He chose a name never before used in the church’s 2,000-year history, signaling to Vatican analysts that he wants a new beginning for the faith.
“It’s a genius move,” Marco Politi, a papal biographer and veteran Vatican watcher, said of the selection. “It’s a non-Italian, non-European, not a man of the Roman government. It’s an opening to the Third World, a moderate. By taking the name Francis, it means a completely new beginning.”
Applause broke out in the Sistine Chapel for Bergoglio when he crossed the threshold of 77 votes, and again when he said “Accetto” – I accept – according to Cardinal Timothy Dolan, himself viewed as a possible contender for the throne. Dolan told reporters that Bergoglio “immediately said, ‘I choose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi,’ ” a rich man’s son who took a vow of poverty.
After vesting in the white robes, the new pontiff looked at a white chair brought out for him on a platform and said, “Oh, I’ll stay down here,’ ” Dolan said, adding that Francis eschewed a car and instead took a bus back to the hotel with the cardinals and delivered a toast before dinner: “May God forgive you.”
“It’s highly significant for what Francis means,” Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said. “It means that he is here to serve.”
Lombardi added that after weeks of focus on a Vatican scandal over the leaking of papal letters, and all the talk about who exercises power and authority in the church, the selection of the humble Jesuit, who used to take the bus and cook for himself, amounted to a “refusal of power” and “was absolutely radical.”
But for many, it was Bergoglio’s hemisphere of origin, home to the largest percentage of Catholics in the world, that was potentially the most important “first” for the future of the church.
Dolan said that the universality of the church was “accented in the choice of a Latin American,” adding that the pope is sure to be received warmly when he visits South America. “Can you imagine the welcome he’ll get?” he said.
“We know how longed-for this was by the Catholics in Latin America,” Lombardi said. “This is a great response to this anticipation.”
That reaction was palpable in St. Peter’s Square as Bergoglio, after being introduced with an announcement of “habemus papam” (we have a pope), walked through crimson curtains to the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to address the crowd. They greeted him with cheers of “Viva il papa!”
Clad in white and surrounded by cardinals dressed in scarlet, he blessed the faithful below him. Then, in a gesture that many interpreted as a greater embrace of dialogue, he asked the crowd to “pray for me, and we’ll see each other soon.” Finally, with avuncular simplicity, he bid the crowd, “Good night, and have a good rest.”
“It’s the first pope from Latin America!” said Horacio Pintos of Uruguay, who hoisted his daughter on his shoulders.
“It’s an opening to a continent that is full of faithful that has been ignored,” interrupted Carlos Becerril, 35, of Mexico. “We will now all be heard more strongly.”
In picking Bergoglio, the cardinals apparently felt that he was the most effective messenger to protect and propagate the faith among the 200 million Catholics in the lively religious marketplace of Latin America, where Pentecostal and evangelical competitors are rising. His election reinforces the church’s insistence that it is a truly global institution.
Outside Rome, the Latin world is far from the only area of concern for the church. Secularism is surging in Europe and North America, Islam is spreading, and persecution is a reality for Christians in the Middle East and Africa.
On Sunday, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesman, bumped into Bergoglio as he was walking alone by Piazza Navona, wearing a simple black cassock.
“I want you to pray for me,” he told Rosica. “I’m a little nervous right now.”
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