VATICAN CITY -- Jorge Mario Bergoglio 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.
Bergoglio, 76, of Argentina, 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.
The surprise choice of Bergoglio gives the church its first non-European leader in more than a millennium and the first from South America. The selection reflects the reality that the church’s center of gravity has moved away from Europe; Latin America is home to nearly half of the world’s Catholics.
But Francis also represents continuity, a figure whom many of the cardinals already knew well. He finished second in all four rounds of balloting during the 2005 election of Benedict, and hews to the same conservative path of Catholicism.
“You know that the duty of the conclave was to provide Rome with a bishop,” Francis told the crowd in St. Peter's Square, referring to the pope’s traditional position as bishop of Rome. “It looks as if my brothers the cardinals went to fetch him at the end of the Earth. I would like to thank you for your welcome.”
Analysts said his choice of papal name, after St. Francis of Assisi, reflected Bergoglio's humility and concern for the poor and marginalized, qualities he showed during his tenure in Argentina.
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.
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.
A cry went up of “Habemus papam,” Latin for “We have a pope,” the phrase uttered before Cardinal Jean-Louis Touran of France introduced Benedict's successor and the new pope emerged from behind red velvet curtains onto the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
The smoke went up shortly after 7 p.m. The basilica’s bells began pealing about a minute later to confirm the election of a new pontiff, delighting the crowds below. The Vatican’s band marched into the square to celebrate the event.
Following centuries of tradition, the man elected by his fellow cardinals would have been asked inside the Sistine Chapel after the vote whether he accepted the responsibility laid on him. He would have announced his papal name, then disappeared to put on his new white vestments in the adjoining Room of Tears, so called because previous popes are said to have been overcome by emotion realizing the burden being placed on them.
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, March 19, was a strong possibility because it is the feast day of Joseph, the patron saint of the church.
[This post was twice updated with additional details.]