ROME -- The surprise selection on Wednesday of an Argentine, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the new pope shifted the gravity of the Roman Catholic Church from Europe to Latin America in one fell swoop, and served as an emphatic salute to the growing power of Latinos across the Americas.
The new pope took the name Francis and is the 266th pontiff of the church. He is the first pope from Latin America, and the first member of the Jesuit order to lead the church.
"I would like to thank you for your embrace," the new pope, dressed in white, said in Italian from the 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."
The selection electrified Latinos from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, and raised the hopes especially of those in Latin America, where 4 of every 10 of the world's Catholics now live.
But the choice also may provide a strategic boost to the church in the United States, where its following would have lost ground in recent decades were it not for the influx of Latino immigrants, who have increasingly asserted themselves as a cultural and political force, and played a critical role in President Obama's re-election.
The significance of the choice was not lost on church leaders. "It's been more than 500 years since the first evangelization, and this is the first time that there is a pope from Latin America," said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who is originally from Mexico.
"It's a huge role that we never had before," he said.
The new pope, known for his simple, pastoral ways and his connection to the poor, is in some ways a contrast to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, an aloof theologian who resigned the office -- the first pope to do so in 598 years -- saying he no longer felt up to the rigors of the job.
But Francis shares Benedict's core doctrinal positions and is not considered likely to push changes in positions like the church's ban on the ordination of women as priests or its strict opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
The choice of Francis, who is 76, also defied some predictions that the 115 cardinals would opt for a young pope who could energize the church at a time when it faces a shortage of priests, growing competition from evangelical churches in the Southern Hemisphere, a sexual abuse crisis that has undermined the church's moral authority in the West and difficulties governing the Vatican itself.
Pope Francis spoke by telephone with Benedict, now known as pope emeritus, 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.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York told reporters he had heard that Francis would visit Benedict soon, although the Vatican did not include the visit on the new pope's schedule for this week. Italian news media reported that the visit would take place in the next few days and would be televised.
Mr. Obama was among the first world leaders to congratulate Francis in a message that emphasized the pope's humble roots and New World origins.
"As the first pope from the Americas," the president said, "his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day."
The cardinals could have chosen a pope from a country in Africa or Asia where Catholic converts are plentiful and the church is vibrant. Instead, they selected a cardinal from Argentina, to the surprise of even those who had hoped for a non-European.
"An Argentine! I can't believe it," said Gaston Aquino, a seminarian from Argentina standing in the packed crowd in St. Peter's Square in Rome as the name of the new pope was announced from the balcony above. "Bergoglio, pope!" he marveled. "I think it will mean great joy" for Argentina.
Catholics in the United States are holding steady at about a quarter of the population, and about one-third of those are Latinos. In Latin America, the church is confronting many of the same cultural and political battles as it is in Europe and the United States: a rise in acceptance of gay relationships, abortion and birth control, and a growing tide of people abandoning the church and professing no religion.
The Rev. Luis Calero, a Jesuit priest and professor of anthropology at Santa Clara University in California who studies the church in Central and South America said: "A lot of Catholics are leaving the Catholic church in Latin America to go to evangelical and Pentecostal churches. They no longer find a home in Catholic Christianity.
"Going to a traditional parish is no longer fulfilling to them because the parish is impersonal," he said. "It tends to not have a sense of community that is uplifting."
Father Calero said the next pope might be able to turn the situation around if he could respond to what he said were the most pressing problems: poverty, pluralism and the shortage of priests because of the church's requirement of clerical celibacy.
The choice of Cardinal Bergoglio at least initially appeared to be celebrated across the continent. There had been faint hope in Mexico that the next pope would be Cardinal José Francisco Robles Ortega, the archbishop of Guadalajara, who was mentioned in Italian newspapers in the past week as a candidate gaining steam.
But many Mexican were joyous nonetheless, with newspapers playing up the historical turn of a Latin American assuming the throne of Peter.
"It fills us with joy because he is close to the Latin American people," Msgr. Eugenio Lira, the secretary general of the Mexican Conference of Bishops, told reporters. "He could be sensitive to economic conditions and the suffering, joys and hope of people in these lands."
The choice also points to challenges faced by the church in some parts of Latin America, like Portuguese-speaking Brazil, the country with the world's largest concentration of Catholics, where evangelical churches have made big inroads in recent decades. In Argentina itself, a nation historically seen as more Europeanized than its neighbors, the church is grappling with a declining number of Catholics who regularly attend mass.
Cardinal Dolan said in an interview after the conclave that "Catholic is part of their DNA" in Argentina. With Cardinal Bergoglio as pope, he said, "think of the electricity that is going to send."
But he said that country of origin was not the main factor for the cardinals who elected him.
"Most cardinals just want to choose the right man," he said. The pope should be a good pastor, governor and communicator. "He fills those bills. Where he comes from is gravy. And we've got a lot of good gravy."
Enrique Krauze, a Mexican historian and political analyst, said there would be an expectation in Latin America for a pope from the region to promote democracy and human rights.
"If the church plays a role in favor of democracy and human rights as it played in Chile during the Pinochet regime, then the pope will be a factor in civic progress in these countries," he said. "If the church takes up the banner of freedom it would be a great benefit in this continent that is the reservoir of Catholicism in the world."
Outside St. Matthew Catholic School in West Phoenix, where she had gone to pick up her children, Deana Silva, 27, said, "I didn't really connect with the other pope," but "Papa Francisco," or Pope Francis, "is different." He is "more like us, you know, Latino," Ms. Silva said.
Her mother, Donna Reyes, 46, said she was "very excited." "We had been watching and waiting," said Ms. Reyes, whose parents were immigrants from Mexico. "There are a lot of us Latinos in the Catholic Church. It was nice that the Church finally recognized it."
As the children lined up to leave school, someone said a prayer and made an announcement about Lent over the loudspeakers, then, in Spanish, greeted the new pope, "el primer Papa de las Americas," the first pope from the Americas.
Reporting was contributed by Rachel Donadio, Gaia Pianigiani and Daniel J. Wakin from Vatican City; Elisabetta Povoledo from Rome; Jennifer Medina from Los Angeles; Fernanda Santos from Phoenix; and Randal C. Archibold from Mexico City.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.