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March 14, 2013

Pope Francis a first on many fronts

VATICAN CITY (AP) — From “the end of the earth,” the Catholic Church found a surprising new leader Wednesday, a pioneer pope from Argentina who took the name Francis, a pastor rather than a manager, to resurrect a church and faith in crisis.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires who has spent nearly his entire career in Argentina, was a fast and fitting choice for the most unpredictable papal succession — start to finish — in at least six centuries.

He is the first pontiff from the New World and the first non-European since the Middle Ages. He is also the first Jesuit and the first named Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, the humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor. The last non-European pope was Syria’s Gregory III from 731-41.

“You know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome,” the new pontiff said as he waved shyly to the tens of thousands who braved a cold rain Wednesday in St. Peter’s Square. “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.”

The 76-year-old Bergoglio, said to have finished second when Pope Benedict XVI was chosen in 2005, was chosen on just the fifth ballot to replace the first pontiff to resign in 600 years. In the past century, only Benedict, John Paul I in 1978 and Pius XII in 1939 were faster.

Francis’ election elated Latin Americans, who number 40 percent of the world’s Catholics but have long been underrepresented in the church leadership. On Wednesday, drivers honked their horns in the streets of Buenos Aires and television announcers screamed with elation at the news.

“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. “Everyone from Canada down to Patagonia is going to feel blessed.”

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