VATICAN CITY – Argentinean Jorge Bergoglio became the first pope from Latin America and the first Jesuit after he was elected Wednesday.
Pope Francis, 78, reportedly got the second-most votes after Joseph Ratzinger, the last pope, in the 2005 papal election. He has long specialized in the kind of pastoral work — overseeing churches and priests — that some say is an essential skill for a pope.
“I don’t know what to say, I am so excited,” said Dr. Gilberto Cavazos-Gonzalez, a professor at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and a visiting professor at the Pontifical University Antonianum in Rome. “It’s so out of left field, I’m tearing up, it’s emotional that one of us, un Latino, is now in charge of our church. It’s right and just, it just feels great.”
In a lifetime of teaching and leading priests in Latin America, which has the largest share of the world's Catholics, the former Bergoglio has shown a keen political sensibility as well as a self-effacing humility, according to his official biographer, Sergio Rubin. His personal style is the antithesis of Vatican splendor.
Bergoglio is also known for modernizing an Argentine church that had been among the most conservative in Latin America.
Patrick McNamara, director of communications for the Catholic League in New York, said this was a huge moment for the Church, Latin America and the Jesuit order.
“This is the first time in history we have pope named Francis, from Latin America and who is a Jesuit,” McNamara said. “Electing a South American pope is a sign of the Church’s universality. Remember that catholic means universal.”
Bergoglio, a purveyor of social justice and the rights of the poor, is known to be well respected among his fellow holy men.
“It’s a testament to the esteem that his fellow cardinals have for him,” McNamara said of his election to the papacy. “I don’t think you’ll find a pope more committed to pastoral security, committed to the poor and concerned about social justice.”
Bergoglio has been praised for his humility and commitment to the poor in Argentina. The name Francis for the pope is supposed to be in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, who was the apostle of the poor.
“He’s extremely humble,” said Mario Paredes, Presidential liaison for the Roman Catholic Ministries American Bible Society. “He takes the subway everyday to work.”
His age does cause some worry among Catholic experts, who expected a younger pope following the retirement of Benedict XVI.
“I was surprised in the sense that he’s 76 years of age,” Paredes said. “I thought they would have chosen someone younger, just because of the physical reason.”
The church overcame deep divisions to select the 266th pope in a remarkably fast conclave. Elected on the fifth ballot, he was chosen in one of the fastest conclaves in years, remarkable given there was no clear front-runner going into the vote.
The conclave was called after Pope Benedict XVI resigned last month, throwing the church into turmoil and exposing deep divisions among cardinals tasked with finding a manager to clean up a corrupt Vatican bureaucracy as well as a pastor who can revive Catholicism in a time of growing secularism.
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, many shouting "Habemus Papam!" or "We have a pope!" — as the bells of St. Peter's Basilica and churches across Rome tolled, signaling a pontiff had been chosen.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.