Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected Pope yesterday, becoming the first pontiff from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium. He chose the name Francis, associating himself with the humble 13th-century Italian preacher who lived a life of poverty.
Looking stunned, Francis shyly waved to the crowd of tens of thousands of people who had gathered in St Peter's Square for the announcement, marvelling that the cardinals needed to look to "the end of the earth" to find a bishop of Rome.
In choosing a 76-year-old Pope, the cardinals clearly decided that they didn't need a vigorous, young Pope who would reign for decades but rather a seasoned, popular and humble pastor who would draw followers to the faith. The cardinal electors overcame deep divisions to select the 266th pontiff in a remarkably fast, five-ballot conclave.
Francis asked for prayers for himself, and for retired pope Benedict XVI, whose surprising resignation paved the way for the conclave that brought the first Jesuit to the papacy. Francis also spoke by phone with Benedict after his election and plans to see him in the coming days, the Vatican said.
"Brothers and sisters, good evening," Francis said to wild cheers in his first public remarks as pontiff from the loggia of St Peter's Basilica.
"You know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome. 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," he said.
Across the planet, Latin Americans burst into tears and jubilation at news that the region, which counts 40 per cent of the world's Catholics, finally had a Pope to call its own.
"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.
Bergoglio had reportedly finished second in the 2005 conclave that produced Benedict who last month became the first Pope to resign in 600 years. The speed with which he was elected Pope this time around indicates that even though he is 76 and has slowed down he still had the trust of cardinals to do the job.
After announcing "Habemus Papam" "We have a Pope!" a cardinal standing on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica yesterday revealed the identity of the new pontiff, using his Latin name, and announced he would be called Francis.
The longtime archbishop of Buenos Aires is the son of middle-class Italian immigrants and is known as a humble man who denied himself the luxuries that previous Buenos Aires cardinals enjoyed.
He often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina's capital. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.
Catholics are still buzzing over his speech last year accusing fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.
Bergoglio has slowed a bit with age and is feeling the effects of having a lung removed due to infection when he was a teenager.
In a lifetime of teaching and leading priests in Latin America, which has the largest share of the world's Catholics, Bergoglio has also shown a keen political sensibility as well as the kind of self-effacing humility that fellow cardinals value highly, according to his official biographer, Sergio Rubin.
He showed that humility yesterday, saying that before he blessed the crowd he wanted their prayers for him and then he bowed his head amid the silence from the crowd.
"Good night, and have a good rest," he said before going back into the palace.
In choosing to call himself Francis, the new Pope was associating himself with the much-loved Italian saint associated with peace, poverty and simplicity. St Francis was born to a wealthy family but later renounced his wealth and founded the Franciscan order of friars; he wandered about the countryside preaching to the people in very simple language.
He was so famed for his sanctity that he was canonised just two years after his death in 1226.
Francis will celebrate his first Mass as Pope in the Sistine Chapel today, and will be installed officially as Pope on Tuesday, according to Vatican spokesman the Rev Federico Lombardi.
Lombardi, also a Jesuit, said he was particularly stunned by the election given that Jesuits typically shun positions of authority in the church, instead offering their work in service to those in power.
But Lombardi said that in accepting the election, Francis must have felt it "a strong call to service," an antidote to all those who speculated that the papacy was about a search for power.
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 a few minutes past 7 p.m., many shouting "Habemus Papam!" or "We have a Pope!" as the bells of St Peter's Basilica and churches across Rome pealed.
They cheered again when the doors to the loggia opened, and again when Bergoglio's name was announced.
"I can't explain how happy I am right now," said Ben Canete, a 32-year-old Filipino, jumping up and down in excitement.
Elected on the fifth ballot, Francis was chosen in one of the fastest conclaves in years, remarkable given there was no clear front-runner going into the vote and that the church had been in turmoil following the upheaval unleashed by Benedict's surprise resignation.
A winner must receive 77 votes, or two-thirds of the 115, to be named Pope.
For comparison's sake, Benedict was elected on the fourth ballot in 2005 but he was the clear front-runner going into the vote. Pope John Paul II was elected on the eighth ballot in 1978 to become the first non-Italian Pope in 455 years.
Patrizia Rizzo ran down the main boulevard to the piazza with her two children as soon as she heard the news on the car radio. "I parked the car ... and dashed to the square, she said. "It's so exciting, as Romans we had to come."