As white smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel on Wednesday and the bells of St. Peter’s tolled, the crowd of thousands that had gathered in the square began cheering the election of a new pope to succeed Benedict.
About an hour after the smoke appeared, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran took to the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to announce the name of the 266th pope. As per tradition, Cardinal Tauran shouted “Habermus Papam!” (which means “we have a new pope!”). He then revealed that the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires would be the new head of the Catholic church.
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has looked like an obvious choice for pope since he reportedly came second in the balloting to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in 2005 – but he kept such a low profile that few commentators saw him as a leading candidate in 2013.
Clearly he enjoyed the deep respect of the world’s cardinals, who must have voted for him in significant numbers from the very first ballot. He was elected tonight on the fifth vote, suggesting a massive groundswell of support in the College of Cardinals.
Bergoglio marks several firsts for the Catholic church. In addition to being the first Pope Francis in the history of Catholicism, he is also the first Jesuit pope and the first pope elect from outside of Europe.
Pope Francis I spoke by telephone with Benedict 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.
Francis I is known as a humble man who spoke out for the poor and led an austere life in Buenos Aires. He was born to Italian immigrant parents and was raised in the Argentine capital.
Reactions poured in swiftly from around the world following Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s first appearance as Pope Francis on St. Peter’s balcony.
“I would like to thank you for your embrace,” the new pope, dressed in white, said from the white 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.”
Speaking in Italian as he blessed the faithful, Francis asked the audience to “pray for me, and we’ll see each other soon.”
“Good night, and have a good rest,” he concluded, in a grandfatherly, almost casual tone.
As he showed in his first address this evening, he is a man of great humility, asking first for the blessing of the crowd in St Peter’s Square before he delivered his own.
“Let us pray for the entire world so that there is a great fraternity, a great brotherhood. I wish that this journey that we begin today… is fruitful for the evangelization of this beautiful city,” he said from Vatican City.
His choice of the name “Francis” evokes St Francis of Assisi, the Italian mystic who received a call from God to “rebuild my Church”. Pope Francis must believe that it is his task to rebuild a Church that has been profoundly damaged by abuse scandals and corruption within the Roman Curia.
Like any pope, his task is to conserve the Catholic faith, rather than alter it, so he is unlikely to effect any of the changes commonly cited by the media: approving contraception, making priestly celibacy voluntary or ordaining women.
But he will surely surprise us with his spontaneity, unstuffiness and evident personal holiness.