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Pope Francis, first pontiff from the Americas

VATICAN CITY

Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected pope Wednesday, becoming the first pontiff from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium. He chose the name Francis, associating himself with the humble 13th century Italian preacher who lived a life of poverty. Francis shyly waved to the crowd of more than 100,000 people who packed a rain-soaked St. Peter's Square for the announcement, marveling that the cardinals needed to look to "the end of the earth" to find a bishop of Rome.

In choosing a 76-year-old pope, the cardinals clearly decided that they didn't need a vigorous, young pope who would reign for decades but rather a seasoned, popular and humble pastor who would draw followers to the faith and help rebuild a church stained by scandal.

The cardinal electors overcame deep divisions about the future of the church to select the 266th pontiff in a remarkably fast, five-ballot conclave.

Francis asked for prayers for himself, and for retired Pope Benedict XVI, whose stunning resignation paved the way for the conclave that brought the first Jesuit to the papacy.

"Brothers and sisters, good evening," Francis said to wild cheers in his first public remarks as pontiff from the loggia of St. Peter's Basilica.

"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, but here we are. Thank you for the welcome," he said.

Across the world, Latin Americans burst into tears and jubilation at news that the region, which counts 40 percent of the world's Catholics, finally had a pope to call its own.

"It's a huge gift for all of Latin America. We waited 20 centuries. It was worth the wait," said Jose Antonio Cruz, a Franciscan friar at the St. Francis of Assisi church in the colonial Old San Juan district in Puerto Rico.

Bergoglio had reportedly finished second in the 2005 conclave that produced Benedict — who last month became the first pope to resign in 600 years. The speed with which he was elected pope this time around indicates that — even though he is 76 and has slowed down from the effects of having a lung removed as a teenager — he still had the trust of cardinals to do the job.

After announcing "Habemus Papam" — ''We have a pope!" — a cardinal standing on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday revealed the identity of the new pontiff, using his Latin name, and announced he would be called Francis.

The longtime archbishop of Buenos Aires is the son of middle-class Italian immigrants and is known as a humble man who denied himself the luxuries that previous Buenos Aires cardinals enjoyed. He often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina's capital. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.

Catholics are still buzzing over his speech last year accusing fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

Francis will celebrate his first Mass as pope in the Sistine Chapel today, and will be installed officially as pope on Tuesday, according to the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

Lombardi, also a Jesuit, said he was particularly stunned by the election given that Jesuits typically shun positions of authority in the church, instead offering their work in service to those in power.

In Washington, President Barack Obama offered prayers and warm wishes, applauding the selection of the first pope from the Americas as a sign of the region's strength and vitality.

"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.

Elected on the fifth ballot, Francis was chosen in one of the fastest conclaves in years, remarkable given there was no clear front-runner going into the vote and that the church had been in turmoil following the upheaval unleashed by Benedict's surprise resignation.

Tens of thousands of people who braved cold rain to watch the smokestack atop the Sistine Chapel jumped in joy when white smoke poured out a few minutes past 7 p.m., many shouting "Habemus Papam!" as the bells of St. Peter's Basilica and churches across Rome pealed.

After what seemed like an unending wait of more than an hour, they cheered again when the doors to the loggia opened. The cheers became deafening when Bergoglio's name was announced.

"I can't explain how happy I am right now," said Ben Canete, a 32-year-old Filipino, jumping up and down in excitement.

Patrizia Rizzo ran down the main boulevard to the piazza with her two children as soon as she heard the news on the car radio. "I parked the car and dashed to the square, she said. "It's so exciting, as Romans we had to come."

Catholics and non-Catholics alike were swept up in the excitement, including Elizabeth Asher, a 21-year-old Jewish student at the American University of Rome.

"It was so wonderful to see how happy everyone was," said Asher, of Montclair, New Jersey. "They were cheering 'papa, papa.' They probably didn't even know who he is, but they were just so happy to have a new pope."

It took a moment of silent prayer led by the new Pope Francis himself to get everyone to calm down. As he bent his head humbly after asking for the prayers of the faithful, the square packed with people from around the world suddenly went silent.

Then, as the crowd streamed out of the square, the celebrations continued.

"I'm so happy because the new pope is from Latin America. That means we are a big people," said Maggy Pena, a 45-year-old immigrant from the Dominican Republic. "For the first time we have a pope. And next we will have an American president. You'll see!"

Next for the new pope

Today: Francis will celebrate his first Mass as pope in the Sistine Chapel. He is also expected to visit his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Francis also plans to pray at St. Mary Major basilica in Rome.

Sunday: Francis is expected to speak to the crowd in St. Peter's Square, after two Sundays with no pope to appear at the papal studio window to bless them.

Tuesday: Installation Mass, a morning-long affair, with much pomp, prayers and VIPs, with as many as 200 foreign delegations expected as well as hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file, including many from Argentina.

Next for the new pope

Today: Francis will celebrate his first Mass as pope in the Sistine Chapel. He is also expected to visit his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Francis also plans to pray at St. Mary Major basilica in Rome.

Sunday: Francis is expected to speak to the crowd in St. Peter's Square, after two Sundays with no pope to appear at the papal studio window to bless them.

Tuesday: Installation Mass, a morning-long affair, with much pomp, prayers and VIPs in the pews, with as many as some 200 foreign delegations expected as well as hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file, including many from the pope's homeland, Argentina.

Pope Francis, first pontiff from the Americas 03/13/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 12:38am]

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