World leaders sent in their congratulations and Catholics around the world were celebrating Wednesday after the Vatican announced the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio to the papacy — making him the first pontiff from the Americas.

People cheer in St. Peter's Square (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

As bells tolled and crowds cheered across Latin America, President Barack Obama offered warm wishes to Pope Francis and said the selection speaks to the strength and vitality of the New World.

"I offer our warm wishes to His Holiness Pope Francis," Obama said. "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 2,000 years."

In Europe, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel also issued statements of congratulations.

Wednesday was "a momentous day for the 1.2 billion Catholics around the world," Cameron said in a message posted to Twitter, while Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, said millions of Catholics and non-Catholics alike would be looking to the new pope for guidance not just in questions of faith but in matters of peace, justice and protecting creation.

Merkel said she was particularly happy for Christians in Latin America, who now had one of their own called to be pope for the first time. Francis was elected after German-born Pope Benedict XVI stepped down last month, saying he lacked the strength to continue in the job.


Newly elected Pope Francis appears on the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica ( Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he looked forward to cooperation with the Holy See under Pope Francis' "wise leadership," while European Union leaders Herman Van Rompuy and Jose Manuel Barroso wished the new Catholic leader "a long and blessed pontificate."

The atmosphere across Latin America brimmed with excitement and surprise, with people bursting into tears and cheers on streets from Buenos Aires to Caracas, Venezuela.

"It's incredible!" said Martha Ruiz, 60, who was weeping tears of emotion in the Argentine capital. She said she had been in many meetings with the cardinal and said, "He is a man who transmits great serenity."

At the St. Francis of Assisi church in the colonial Old San Juan district in Puerto Rico, church secretary Antonia Veloz exchanged jubilant high-fives with Jose Antonio Cruz, a Franciscan friar.

"It's a huge gift for all of Latin America. We waited 20 centuries. It was worth the wait," said Cruz, wearing the brown cassock tied with a rope that is the signature of the Franciscan order.

Arcilia Litchfield, a 57-year-old tourist from Albuquerque, New Mexico, was walking down the cobblestone streets when they glanced at a TV and saw that a new pope had been chosen. She and her husband then went to the San Juan Cathedral, where the remains of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon are buried.

"It's historic. It's the first time a pope has been chosen from this part of the world," she said. "It hasn't sunk in yet."

Even in Communist Cuba, there was pride as church bells rang to celebrate the news. Elsewhere on the continent, people traded stories about the new pontiff.

"You would see him taking public buses," said Maurizzio Pavia, an Argentine now working in Puerto Rico, who said he was familiar with Bergoglio because they both came from the same region. "He would cook his own food. He would not let anyone serve him."

In the United States, the archbishop of Philadelphia said the new pope is a man of "extraordinary intellectual and cultural strengths."

Archbishop Charles Chaput calls Francis a "wonderful choice" who comes from the "new heartland of the global church."

Despite the overwhelming outpouring of joy and goodwill, not everyone thought the news was positive.

Andrew Reding of the World Policy Institute in New York said the choice of Bergoglio was an example of "superficial change."

"Once again, a conclave has made a bold geographical move while choosing a doctrinal conservative," he said. "To paraphrase an old saying, the more things change in the Roman Catholic Church, the more they stay the same."

On Twitter, the pope's mothballed account was revived and read: "HABEMUS PAPAM FRANCISCUM," a reference to the cardinal's new name: Pope Francis.

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