The new pope will be called Francis, and he is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. He is the first non-European pope in more than 1,200 years and the first member of the Jesuit order to lead the church.

“I would like to thank you for your embrace,” the new pope, dressed in white, said in Italian from a balcony on St. Peter’s Basilica as thousands cheered joyously below. “My brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am.”

In one fell swoop, the cardinals shifted the gravity of the church from its centuries’ old center in Europe to Latin America, where 4 of every 10 of the world’s Catholics now live.

But the choice also may provide a strategic boost to the church in the United States, where its following would have lost ground in recent decades were it not for the influx of Latino immigrants, who have increasingly asserted themselves as a cultural and political force, having played a critical role in President Obama’s re-election.

The significance of the choice was not lost on church leaders. “It’s been more than 500 years since the first evangelization, and this is the first time that there is a pope from Latin America,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who is originally from Mexico.

“It’s a huge role that we never had before,” he said.

The new pope, known for his simple, pastoral ways and his connection to the poor, is in some ways a contrast to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, an aloof theologian who resigned the office — the first pope to do so in 598 years — saying he no longer felt up to the rigors of the job.

But Francis shares Benedict’s core doctrinal positions and is not considered likely to push changes in positions like the church’s ban on the ordination of women as priests or its strict opposition to abortion and gay marriage.

The choice of Francis, who is 76, also defied some predictions that the 115 cardinals would opt for a young pope would could energize the church at a time when it faces a shortage of priests, growing competition from evangelical churches in the Southern Hemisphere, a sexual abuse crisis that has undermined the church’s moral authority in the West and difficulties governing the Vatican itself.

Pope Francis spoke by telephone with Benedict, now known as pope emeritus, on Wednesday evening, said a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi. He called it, “an act of great significance and pastorality” that Francis’ first act as pope was to offer a prayer for his predecessor.

President Obama was among the first world leaders to congratulate Francis in a message that emphasized the pope’s humble roots and New World origins.

“As the first people from the Americas,” the president said, “his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day.”

The cardinals could have chosen a pope from a country in Africa or Asia where Catholic converts are plenty and the church is vibrant. Instead, they selected a cardinal from Argentina, to the surprise of even those who had hoped for a non-European.

“An Argentine! I can’t believe it,” said Gaston Aquino, a seminarian from Argentina standing in the packed crowd in St. Peter’s Square in Rome as the name of the new pope was announced from the balcony above. “Bergoglio, pope!” he marveled. “I think it will mean great joy” for Argentina.

Catholics in the United States are holding steady at about a quarter of the population, and about one-third of those are Latinos. But in Latin America, the church is confronting many of the same cultural and political battles as it is in Europe and the United States: a rise in acceptance of gay relationships, abortion and birth control, and a growing tide of people abandoning the church and professing no religion.

Reporting was contributed by Rachel Donadio, Daniel J. Wakin and Gaia Pianigiani from Vatican City; Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome; Jennifer Medina from Los Angeles; Fernanda Santos from Phoenix; and Randal C. Archibold from Mexico.

New Pope Is First Non-European to Lead Church in 1200 Years – New York Times
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