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 in 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 globe 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, making him 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’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Last month, Benedict became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign. Francis will be the first pope in twice that long to hail from outside Europe.
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 in a Mass on Tuesday, is a pope of firsts. The first Jesuit pope in history, he chose a name never 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 of New York, himself a candidate for the throne. Dolan told reporters that Bergoglio “immediately said, ‘I choose the name Francis in honor of St. Francis of Assisi,’ ” referring to 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,” said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. “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.
Said Lombardi: “We know how longed-for this was by the Catholics in Latin America. 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.”
“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 two thousand years — that in each other we see the face of God,” Obama said in a statement.
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. During a ceremony to mark the appointment of Benedict’s last batch of cardinals, none of whom hailed from Europe, members of the College of Cardinals repeatedly emphasized that universality.
“The church is universal, so it’s only normal that they come from all around the world,” said Cardinal Antonio Maria Veglio of Italy, president of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. “It’s beautiful. This time it was an unusual but happy development that there was no European.”
“It was a great chance to see that the Catholic church really is a global church and not only European,” said Cardinal Dominik Duka of the Czech Republic. “And as a result of the great demographic crises in our continent, there is a need to think of the church going in a new way.”
In choosing Bergoglio, the cardinals opted against front-runner Angelo Scola, who was considered an Italian echo of Benedict, and a handful of prelates from North America, including New York and Boston, who for the first time generated real buzz. But it did look across the Atlantic. Now there is the question whether the bureaucracy that governs the church, many say badly, will reflect that internationalism or provide an Italian counterweight to it.
Although the church has increasingly staffed its bureaucracy with foreign department heads, true control over the Holy See’s purse strings and power has rested with Europeans, most of whom are Italian. Bergoglio was born to Italian immigrant parents, but he maintains an outsider status that sends a strong signal, analysts and insiders say, that change has finally come.
But the unassuming Argentine will have his work cut out for him.
The Roman Curia, as the pope’s court is called, is riddled with entrenched interests and is historically resistant to reform. Many observers, including some cardinals, believe that the intransigence and political infighting of the Curia overwhelmed Benedict and hastened his departure. Bergoglio doesn’t have a reputation as a commanding manager, and his gracious manner is already sowing the seeds of concern.
But Francis’s humble ethos is matched with an unerring conservatism that is closer in substance to Benedict. The archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998 and a cardinal since 2001, he has excoriated gay marriage efforts in Argentina, dismissed the notion of the ordination of women, opposed left-wing liberation theology and been accused of failing to stand up to, and in some cases collaborating with, the feared military junta.
Outside Rome, the Latin world is far from the only area of concern for the church. Secularism is surging in Europe and North America, where the church is still reeling from a sex-abuse scandal. Islam is spreading, and persecution is a reality for Christians in the Middle East and Africa.
All those challenges may have weighed on Bergoglio as he neared the conclave that would thrust him into history.
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.”