When the white smoke appeared from the chimney above the Sistine Chapel at shortly after 6pm yesterday, the conventional wisdom suggested that one of the cardinals seen as a front-runner had been elected as the 266th pope.
The decision of the 115 cardinals on their fifth ballot was faster than most commentators expected.
Although a conservative, the new Pope is perceived as a reformer, but he was not considered among the small group of favourites for election. This was possibly was because of his age. At 76, he was one of the oldest cardinals at the conclave.
The quizzical silence that greeted the announcement by French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the new Pope reflected the bemusement of the crowd gathered in St Peter’s Square.
There seemed to be little recognition of his name among the gathering, even though he was believed to have finished second in the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
Cardinal Bergoglio, who has taken the pontifical name of Francis, is a first in many senses.
A native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, he is not only the first pope to adopt the name of Francis, but also the first Argentinian to be elected pope.
Indeed, he is first person born anywhere in the new world to become pope.
Francis, who is also the first Jesuit to be elected, inherits many challenges.
Pope Benedict XVI was the first pope to resign in 598 years, because he said that he no longer felt up to the rigours of the office.
The challenges facing the new pope range from a growing shortage of priests to the worldwide difficulties caused by the clerical paedophile scandals and the cover-ups that have undermined the moral authority of the Church hierarchy, along with reported corruption within the Vatican banking system, and the intense rivalries within the Curia.
But election of Pope Francis will undoubtedly be enthusiastically welcomed in Latin America, where over 40% of all Roman Catholics live.
We wish him every success in the difficult tasks that he has inherited.
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