World leaders from Panama City to Washington to Manila praised the selection of the first non-European pope in more than 12 centuries, calling the break from tradition a sign the church listened to calls to modernize.
Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, chose the name of Pope Francis for his pontificate and was greeted by thousands of cheering faithful as he stepped out on a balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. Reaction spread on Twitter, Facebook, e-mails and the airwaves.
His selection “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,” President Barack Obama said in a statement in Washington.
Obama received word that a new pope had been selected during a meeting with Republicans including U.S. House Speaker John Boehner, a Catholic. “Reaching out beyond the traditional continent of our church is another big step in the right direction for the church,” Boehner told reporters.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that the UN and the religious leader “share many common goals -- from the promotion of peace, social justice and human rights, to the eradication of poverty and hunger -- all core elements of sustainable development.”
The new pope, of Italian descent, inherits from his German predecessor Benedict XVI a church rocked by sex-abuse scandals amid a waning profile in an increasingly secular West. His biggest challenge is to restore the reputation of the millennia-old institution and attract believers as populations swell in developing countries.
The scope of his task was reflected in part in the reaction from his homeland.
“It’s our desire that as you assume control to guide the church, that you’re successful in your important responsibilities in favor of justice, equality, fraternity and world peace,” Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner said in a Twitter post.
China hopes the new pope will help improve ties, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said today. Relations are strained because the Vatican recognizes Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province, and because China demands Catholics attend state-sanctioned churches.
“We hope the Vatican can create conditions for the improvement of relations and the gradual removal of obstacles,” Hua told a briefing in Beijing. The Vatican must not interfere with China’s internal affairs and should stop its “so-called foreign relations with Taiwan,” she said.
Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli, in an interview on the sidelines of a conference in Panama City, said the selection was “great for Latin America” and a “well-deserved recognition of how many Catholics are in this region.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in an e-mailed statement from Berlin “I am particularly happy for the Christians in Latin America that for the first time one of them has been called to the top of the Catholic Church.”
While he’s held positions in the curia, the church’s Rome-based bureaucracy, the new pope isn’t seen as a typical Vatican insider. His election came as analysts depicted a struggle in the conclave between mostly Italian cardinals seeking to preserve the status quo and others looking to shake up the curia after last year’s papal leaks scandal.
Francis told a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 who braved a cold, rainy night in the Italian capital to greet him that “it seems that my brother cardinals went to the end of the world” to find a pope.
Buenos Aires Archbishop Eduardo Horacio Garcia, speaking on CN23 television network, described his countryman as someone who will lead with “humility, his closeness to the people. He proves himself through his gestures not his words, his serenity when making decisions.”
Philippines President Benigno Aquino said in a statement that the first pope from outside Europe in more than a thousand years and the first Jesuit to hold the post brought the “promise of renewal in the Catholic Church.” More than 80 percent of the Philippines’ estimated 106 million people are Catholics, according to government data.
“Let us join the whole Church and the world in thanking God for His special gift in the extraordinary person of Pope Francis,” Philippines Cardinal Luis Tagle, who had been seen as a possible candidate for the job, said in a statement today.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite congratulated the pope in an e-mailed statement in Vilnius calling on him “to bring renewal to the world and to the Church itself.” She said she will travel to his inaugural Mass and present him with a Lithuanian “verba,” a colorful scepter of dried flowers used traditionally in place of palms on Palm Sunday in the Baltic nation where more than 75 percent of the population is Catholic.
“It is a beautiful sign to have a new pope who is the first pope from the Americas, from the New World,” said Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez in a post on Facebook that had more than 6,000 “likes” less than three hours after the announcement. “The election of Pope Francis is a call for all of us to strive for holiness and to work to make our countries and our continents a ‘new world of faith.’”
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard in a statement used a similar phrase, saying “the election of a pope from the ‘new world’ is an occasion of genuinely historic proportions.”
Posts to @pontifex, a papal Twitter account, reached 130,000 per minute after the new pope was announced, according to a post on Twitter’s official religion feed.