Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, who will be known as Pope Francis, has been elected to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.

He is the first Pope from the Americas and the first from outside Europe in more than a millennium.

Bergoglio shyly waved as he emerged onto the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square and was greeted with the twinkling of a thousand camera flashes. He greeted the hushed crowd in casual Italian: "Buona sera," he began — a simple "Good evening," in Italian.

Francis then said a prayer for Benedict XVI, now emeritus pope, and asked the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square to pray for him.

Bergoglio, who marvelled that the cardinals had looked to "the end of the earth" to find a bishop of Rome, was not among the favourites heading into the conclave.

As the 266th pontiff, he is the first Jesuit to lead the Roman Catholic Church. 

The 76-year-old was reportedly the runner-up to Benedict during the last conclave. He is well-known for his humility and espouses church teachings on homosexuality, abortion and contraception. He has no Vatican experience.

Canadian Rev. Thomas Rosica, a Vatican spokesperson, told CBC News that Francis is known for "his holiness and simplicity of life, his pastoral skills."

Bergoglio is, Rosica said, "the warmest person you would ever want to meet."

Speculating on why Bergoglio had chosen the name Francis, Rosica said, "Francis of Assisi is a saint that transcends the Catholic Church and is loved by all people, a saint who reached out for simplicity ... poverty and care for the poor."

Bergoglio’s Jesuit background

Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to be elected to the papacy.

The Jesuits, known formally as the Society of Jesus, are a male religious order within the Catholic Church.

The order was founded in the 16th century by Ignatius of Loyola.

One of its main objectives is to spread the Catholic faith through missionary work and education.

Rev. Thomas Rosica, of the Holy See Press Office, says Jesuits are focused on social outreach.

"Cardinal Bergoglio has spent his life opening his arms to the poor and the destitute," Rosica told CBC News.

"Argentina is a beautiful country but there are great pockets of poverty and injustice, and he was right there in the middle of all this."

Amidst the huge St. Peter’s crowd, some of the faithful ran rosary beads through their fingers while others waved their home country’s flag. When Bergoglio was named pope, some stood in stunned silence, surprised to hear the name of the Argentine cardinal.

But not Brother Joseph Poulin, an American from Los Angeles, who met Bergoglio while serving in Buenos Aires.

"He's humble," Poulin said. "Very close to the people."

He expects Bergoglio’s common touch – the new Pope is known to dress in normal priest robes and take the bus to work – will endear him to Catholics around the world.

"You will see, people will love him when they get to know him … he is a good man," Poulin told the CBC's Karen Pauls.

Bergoglio, the son of middle-class Italian immigrants, is the longtime archbishop of Buenos Aires. Yet he's well known for denying himself the luxuries that previous Buenos Aires cardinals enjoyed.

Bergoglio regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina's capital. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.

Catholics are still buzzing over his speech last year accusing fellow church officials of hypocrisy for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

Bergoglio has slowed a bit with age and is feeling the effects of having a lung removed due to infection when he was a teenager.

'We have a pope!'

Slightly before Francis's appearance, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran stood on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica and announced "Habemus Papam" — 'We have a pope!' " —  revealing the identity of the new pontiff by using his Latin name.

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Bergoglio appears on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square minutes after French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran announced he was the pope elect. (Paul Hanna/Reuters)

CBC's chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge, reporting from the square, said the decision was "a stunner."

"The crowd is clearly stunned, unsure of what this means," he said.

CBC reporter Steven D'Souza, who was amidst the crowd, said when the name was called, people began looking at one another. "Then South Americans began to sing and dance."

D'Souza said the Catholics he'd spoken to spoke with "a lot of faith and hope that this is a moment for the church to move forward and put some of the past behind it now so — a lot of excitement."

The new pope was selected after four ballots failed to produce a winner during  a conclave that began Tuesday.

The emergence of white smoke from a chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican shortly after 7 p.m. local time in Rome indicated to the world that cardinals had elected a new head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Elated crowds in St. Peter's Square roared as the white smoke emerged, under a sea of umbrellas on a cold and sometimes rainy evening.

According to Church protocol, the newly elected Pope was fitted for his white cassock, and the other cardinals in the conclave each individually swore obedience to him.

Before he appeared on a balcony overlooking the square, the new pope stopped to pray in the Pauline Chapel.

The conclave drama unfolded against the backdrop of the turmoil unleashed by Benedict's surprise resignation and the exposure of deep divisions among cardinals who grappled with whether they needed a manager to clean up the Vatican's dysfunctional bureaucracy or a pastor who could inspire Catholics at a time of waning faith and growing secularism.

The cardinals, chosen by either Benedict XVI or John Paul II, swore an oath of secrecy ahead of the conclave. Anyone who communicates details about the process risks excommunication.

For more than a week before the voting, the cardinals met privately to try to figure out who among them had the stuff to be pope and what his priorities should be.  

International community reacts

World leaders were quick to congratulate Bergoglio.

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez directed a message to Pope Francis on Twitter.

"In my name, in the name of the Government of Argentina, and on behalf of the people of our country, I want to greet you and congratulate you on having been elected as the new Roman Pontiff of the Universal Church," Fernandez wrote in Spanish.

"I send to you his Holiness, my consideration and respect," she wrote. An image of the tweet has been shared thousands of times.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomed the new Catholic leader. "His Holiness will play a critical role as the leader of the Catholic Church as it faces the challenges of the 21st century," Harper's statement said.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae also sent Bergoglio their congratulations.

Many had been hoping a Canadian would become pontiff today. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, from the hamlet of La Motte, Que., located about 600 kilometres northwest of Montreal, was considered a top contender for the job after heading the Vatican's important bishops' office.

In Brazil, the country's huge but declining Catholic population was hoping contender Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer would become pope.

CBC reporter Adrienne Arseneault, reporting from Rio de Janeiro, said when Bergoglio's name was announced, an entire café full of people dropped to their knees to pray.

Brazilians "appreciate his humble roots, especially because people have struggled here so much," she said. 

U.S. President Barack Obama also praised the selection of Bergoglio.

"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 two thousand years," Obama said in a statement released by the White House.

"I look forward to working with His Holiness to advance peace, security and dignity for our fellow human beings, regardless of their faith."

It’s believed, though unconfirmed, that Bergoglio will be officially installed as Pope Francis next Tuesday at the Vatican, an event that is usually attended by many of the world’s leaders. 

With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press