VATICAN CITY — Wednesday marked several firsts for the Roman Catholic Church with the papal election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina: As Pope Francis, he becomes the first pontiff from the Americas, the first non-European pope in more than a millennium, and the first Jesuit successor to the Throne of St. Peter.
But his first act as pope was taking a name, and he chose one — Francis — fraught with symbolism and indications of where the new pope thinks the church of 1.2 billion people needs to go. Vatican officials said Wednesday he chose the name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi, one of the church's best-known and beloved saints but one whose name no pope had ever taken.
St. Francis was born into an aristocratic family in 12th century Italy but gave away his wealth and founded the Poor Clare order of nuns and the brown-robed Franciscan order of monks, both still known today for their poverty and simple lifestyle. Cardinal Bergoglio also disdained many of the trappings of his office as archbishop of Buenos Aires, choosing to live in an apartment, ride the bus and prepare his own meals rather than use the episcopal palace.
One famous episode from St. Francis' life was his having to overcome revulsion and embrace a leper; Cardinal Bergoglio once performed a symbolic washing of the feet for 12 AIDS patients and vigorously criticized a scandal in which some Argentine priests, contrary to church teaching and canon law, were refusing to baptize babies born outside marriage.
St. Francis of Assisi said he received a vision at a church in San Damiano, in which God called him from a crucifix, saying "Francis, go and rebuild my Church, which you can see has fallen into ruin."
A Franciscan humility was evident in those first moments as Francis, 76, greeted tens of thousands of people who had waited for an hour to see the new pope after the white smoke appeared Wednesday evening through a chilly drizzle in St. Peter's Square.
He shyly asked for a moment of silence and then, contrary to the more usual blessing, asked the people to pray for God's blessings upon him.
"Brothers and sisters, good evening. 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," Francis said in his first public remarks, referring to the gathering of 115 cardinals who had elected him pope. "Thank you for the welcome."
Also like St. Francis, who went to Egypt in a personal bid to convert a Crusader-era Muslim sultan, Cardinal Bergoglio was more than willing to clash with politicians. When Argentina redefined marriage to include same-sex unions, he urged people not to be "naive" about it and attributed the move to the devil.
"We're not talking about a simple political battle; it is a destructive pretension against the plan of God," he said. "We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God." Cardinal Bergoglio also said "we should be conscious that people cannot receive Holy Communion" if they support abortion and euthanasia.
As a result, the reaction Wednesday from Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, who called the cardinal's remarks "really reminiscent of the times of the Inquisition," was somewhat muted. Her office released a terse letter congratulating the new pope and wishing him "fruitful pastoral work."
Other Argentines were less restrained. A banner headline from the TN news channel announced: "The pope from the end of the world Argentina has a pope for the first time in history."
"This is a great source of pride for Argentina," said factory worker Jaime Perez-Giutierez, who was waving his large Argentine flag at the Vatican. "They could not have picked a better man for such an important job. The prayers of the entire nation are behind the new holy father."
The biggest first likely will be his status as the first pope from the Americas, where almost half the world's Catholics reside but whence no pope had previously came. Since the ninth century all the occupants of the Chair of Peter have been Europeans, and every other one was from the Mediterranean coasts of North Africa and the Middle East.
"For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church we have a pope from the Western Hemisphere," said Cardinal Donald M. Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington and one of the men in the conclave that elected Francis. "It's a completely new moment in the life of the church."
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York said that while the College of Cardinals didn't consciously look to geography, it was a sign about the church's future.
"Where he comes from is gravy," he said, while noting that "you talk about a booster shot for the church in the Americas "
Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said Francis will follow tradition and celebrate Mass in the Sistine Chapel with the cardinals on Thursday, his first full day as pope, and plans to pray at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome.
On Sunday, he will address the throngs in St. Peter's Square, which has gone without a papal address for two consecutive Sundays since Benedict XVI resigned Feb. 28, citing health concerns.
Francis' papal installation Mass is set for Tuesday, the feast day of St. Joseph, Father Lombardi said, adding that nearly 200 foreign delegations are expected to attend. The U.S. delegation will be led by Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who is Catholic.
World leaders on Wednesday issued congratulations to the new pontiff as Catholics around the world celebrated.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he looks forward to working with the Holy See under Francis' "wise leadership," while European Union leaders Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso wished the new church leader "a long and blessed pontificate."
In Europe, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also issued statements of congratulations.
President Obama also offered warm wishes to Francis, saying the selection speaks to the strength and vitality of the New World.
"I offer our warm wishes to His Holiness Pope Francis," Mr. Obama said. "As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years."
Cardinal Bergoglio was originally trained as a chemist.
Even though he is the son of an Italian railway worker and speaks fluent Italian, Spanish and German, his choice was recognition that the future of the church lies outside of Europe with its growing secularism, infighting within the Vatican bureaucracy, and a string of sex and financial scandals.
Church researchers say that Pope Francis has his work cut out for him -- unlike Benedict, he will have to concentrate on administration rather than administering to spirituality. And he will have to take on an entrenched and divided bureaucracy dominated by Italians.
"The new pope has to address the power of the Curia [Vatican bureaucracy] and confront the scandals," said the Rev. Alistair Sear, a Rome-based church historian. "He has to rein in the extreme elements of the church."
Cardinal Bergoglio was a surprise choice. Even so, he was elected relatively quickly, receiving the necessary 77 votes on the fifth ballot on just the second day of the conclave.
That is likely because the cardinals wanted a quick resolution after Benedict's surprise announcement that he would retire in February, throwing the church into turmoil. Benedict was the first pope to resign in six centuries and will retire to a former nunnery inside the Vatican.
Some faithful said they hope new leader can steer the church to a more stable course.
"The welfare of the church is important to me," said Nello Toscano, 55, a custodian waiting in St. Peter's Square. "I don't know much about the new pope but I hope and pray he can lead the church in these difficult times."
Jabeen Bhatti reported from Berlin. Andre Radzischewski in Cordoba, Argentina, contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.