VATICAN CITY — From "the end of the earth," the Catholic Church found a surprising new leader Wednesday, a pioneer pope from Argentina who took the name Francis, a pastor rather than a manager to resurrect a church and faith in crisis. He is the first pontiff from the New World and the first non-European since the Middle Ages.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires who has spent nearly his entire career in Argentina, was a fast and fitting choice for the most unpredictable papal succession — start to finish — in at least six centuries.
He is the first pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit and the first named Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, the humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor. The last non-European pope was Syria's Gregory III from 731-41.
"You know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome," the new pontiff said as he waved shyly to the tens of thousands who braved a cold rain in St. Peter's Square. "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."
The 76-year-old Bergoglio, said to have finished second when Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005, was chosen on just the fifth ballot to replace the first pontiff to resign in 600 years. In the past century, only Benedict, John Paul I in 1978 and Pius XII in 1939 were faster.
Francis' election elated Latin Americans, who number 40 percent of the world's Catholics but have long been underrepresented in the church leadership. On Wednesday, drivers honked their horns in the streets of Buenos Aires and television announcers screamed with elation at the news.
"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. "Everyone from Canada down to Patagonia is going to feel blessed."
The new pontiff brings a common touch. The son of middle-class Italian immigrants, he denied himself the luxuries that previous cardinals in Buenos Aires enjoyed. He lived in a simple apartment, often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited slums that ring Argentina's capital.
He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
"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," President Barack Obama said in a statement.
As the 266th pope, Francis inherits a Catholic church in turmoil, beset by the clerical sex abuse scandal, internal divisions and dwindling numbers in parts of the world where Christianity had been strong for centuries.
While Latin America still boasts the largest bloc of Catholics on a single continent, it has faced competition from aggressive evangelical churches that have chipped away at strongholds like Brazil, where the number of Catholics has dropped from 74 percent of the population in 2000 to 65 percent today.