VATICAN CITY -- The cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church broke Europe's millennium-long stranglehold on the papacy and astonished the Catholic world Wednesday, electing Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th pope.
The choice, on the second day of deliberations by a papal conclave in the Sistine Chapel, opened a direct connection to the southern hemisphere at a critical juncture when secularism and competing faiths are depleting the church's ranks around the world and dysfunction is eroding its authority in Rome.
"The duty of the conclave was to appoint a bishop of Rome," said Bergoglio, 76, who took the name Francis, the first pope in history to do so. "And it seems to me that my brother cardinals went to fetch him at the end of the world. But here I am."
Bergoglio is widely believed to have been the runner-up in the 2005 conclave, which yielded Francis' predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Last month, Benedict became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign.
Shortly after his election, Francis called Benedict, now known as pope emeritus, with whom he will meet today. As the third-consecutive non-Italian pope, after the Polish John Paul II and the German Benedict, Francis seems to have ended the era of Italian dominance of the papacy.
Francis, who will be officially installed in a Mass on Tuesday, is a pope of firsts. He chose a name never before used in the church's 2,000-year history, signalling to Vatican analysts that he wants a new beginning for the faith.
"It's a genius move," Marco Politi, a papal biographer and veteran Vatican watcher, said of the selection. "It's a non-Italian, non-European, not a man of the Roman government. It's an opening to the Third World, a moderate. By taking the name Francis, it means a completely new beginning."
Applause broke out in the Sistine Chapel for Bergoglio when he crossed the threshold of 77 votes, and again when he said "Accetto" -- I accept -- according to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, himself viewed as a possible contender for the throne. Dolan told reporters that Bergoglio "immediately said, 'I choose the name Francis in honour of St. Francis of Assisi,' " referring to a rich man's son who took a vow of poverty.
After vesting in the white robes, the new pontiff looked at a white chair brought out for him on a platform and said, "Oh, I'll stay down here,' " Dolan said, adding that Francis eschewed a car and instead took a bus back to the hotel with the cardinals and delivered a toast before dinner: "May God forgive you."
"It's highly significant for what Francis means," said Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi. "It means that he is here to serve."
For many, it was Bergoglio's hemisphere of origin, home to the largest percentage of Catholics in the world, that was potentially the most important "first" for the future of the church.
Dolan said that the universality of the church was "accented in the choice of a Latin American," adding that the Pope is sure to be received warmly when he visits South America. "Can you imagine the welcome he'll get?" he said.
-- The Washington Post