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Jesuit Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina now Pope Francis I

| Wednesday, March 13, 2013, 9:57 p.m.

VATICAN CITY — The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church broke Europe's long stranglehold on the papacy on Wednesday, electing Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th pope.

The choice, on the second day of deliberations by a papal conclave, 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, 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 soon. As the third modern 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 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 choice of Bergoglio. “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.”

“It's highly significant for what Francis means,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman. “It means that he is here to serve.”

For many, Bergoglio's country of origin is the first that matters most for the church. “We know how longed-for this was by the Catholics in Latin America,” said Lombardi. “This is a great response to this anticipation.”

That reaction was palpable in St. Peter's Square as Bergoglio came to the balcony and, in his Argentine-accented Italian, addressed the crowd, which greeted him with cheers of “Viva il papa!”

“It's the first pope from Latin America!” said Horacio Pintos of Uruguay, who held his daughter on his shoulders.

“It's an opening to a continent that is full of faithful that has been ignored,” said Carlos Becerril, 35, from Mexico. “We will now all be heard more strongly.”

President Obama extended warm wishes to Pope Francis on behalf of the American people, noting his trail-blazing 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.”

Obama said he looks forward to working with the new pope “to advance peace, security and dignity for our fellow human beings, regardless of their faith.”

Bergoglio's election was announced by Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the church's most senior cardinal in the order of deacons, or the proto-deacon, who declared “habemus papam” and spoke the name of the new pope. But his words were barely audible, and there was initial confusion over the identity of the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

Bergoglio, 76, the first Jesuit pope, spent nearly his entire career at home in Argentina, overseeing churches and shoe-leather priests, The Associated Press reported. He has long specialized in the kind of pastoral work considered an essential skill for the next pope.

Bergoglio was revealed to the world on the balcony after entering the room of tears, donning white papal vestments and praying with the cardinals who elected him.

To be chosen, a candidate had to win the support of at least two-thirds of the 115 voting-age cardinals. Reported front-runners included Cardinals Angelo Scola of Italy, Marc Ouellet of Canada, and Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil.

Because no one bloc of cardinals — organized around passport or priorities — was large enough on its own to generate the requisite 77 votes, a candidate needed to consolidate support from a cross-section of electors.

Since consensus apparently remained elusive, the cardinals looked to the less familiar names in their college, which is what happened when John Paul II was chosen in 1978.

“Today is the fundamental day,” Politi, a papal biographer and a veteran Vatican watcher with the newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, said before the new pope was announced. “It is a referendum on Scola and whether the papacy will go back to an Italian or cross the Atlantic. For the first time there is a real possibility to have a pope from the Americas.”

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