VATICAN CITY — With a puff of white smoke from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel and to the cheers of thousands of rain-soaked faithful, a gathering of Catholic cardinals picked a new pope from among their midst on Wednesday — choosing the cardinal from Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the first leader of the church ever chosen from South America.
The new pope, 76, to be called Francis, the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, is also the first non-European leader of the church in more than 1,000 years.
“I would like to thank you for your embrace,” said the new pope, dressed in white, speaking from the white balcony on St. Peter’s Basilica as thousands of the faithful cheered joyously below. Francis thanked his fellow cardinals, saying they “have chosen one from far away, but here I am.”
“Habemus papam!,” members of the crowd shouted in Latin, waving umbrellas and flags. “We have a pope!” Others cried “Viva il Papa!”
“It was like waiting for the birth of a baby, only better, " said a Roman man. A child sitting atop his father’s shoulders waved a crucifix.
Francis is the first pope not born in Europe since Columbus alighted in the New World. In choosing him, the cardinals sent a powerful message that the future of the Church lies in the Global South, home to the bulk of the world’s Catholics. One of Benedict’s abiding preoccupations was the rise of secularism in Europe, and he took the name Benedict after the founder of European monastic culture.
The new pope inherits a church wrestling with an array of challenges that intensified during his predecessor, Benedict XVI — from a priest shortage and growing competition from evangelical churches in the Southern Hemisphere where most of the world’s Catholics live, to a sexual abuse crisis that has undermined the church’s moral authority in the West, to difficulties governing the Vatican itself.
Benedict abruptly ended his troubled eight-year papacy last month, announcing he was no longer up to the rigors of the job. He became the first pontiff in 598 years to resign. The 115 cardinals who are under the age of 80 and eligible to vote chose their new leader after two days of voting.
Before beginning the voting by secret ballot in the Sistine Chapel on Tuesday, in a cloistered meeting known as a conclave, the cardinals swore an oath of secrecy in Latin, a rite designed to protect deliberations from outside scrutiny — and to protect cardinals from earthly influence as they seek divine guidance.
The conclave followed more than a week of intense, broader discussions among the world’s cardinals where they discussed the problems facing the church and their criteria for its next leader.
“We spoke among ourselves in an exceptional and free way, with great truth, about the lights, but also about shadows in the current situation of the Catholic Church,” Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, a theologian known for his intellect and his pastoral touch, told reporters earlier this week.
“The pope’s election is something substantially different from a political election,” Cardinal Schönborn said, adding that the role was not “the chief executive of a multinational company, but the spiritual head of a community of believers.”
Indeed, Benedict was selected in 2005 as a caretaker after the momentous papacy of John Paul II, but the shy theologian appeared to show little inclination toward management. His papacy suffered from crises of communications — with Muslims, Jews and Anglicans — that, along with a sex abuse crisis that raged back to life in Europe in 2010, evolved into a crisis of governance.
Critics of Benedict’s secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said he had difficulties in running the Vatican and appeared more interested in the Vatican’s ties to Italy than to the rest of the world. The Vatican is deeply concerned about the fate of Christians in the war-torn Middle East.