VATICAN CITY - Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, delivered his first blessing to a huge crowd in St Peter's Square on Wednesday night, asking for the prayers of "all men and women of good will" to help him lead the Catholic Church.
Francis, speaking Italian with a slight Latin American accent, joked with the crowd before delivering his blessing, saying: "As you know the duty of the conclave is to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world."
Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, of Argentina was announced as the new pope Wednesday after white smoke emerged from the roof of the Sistine Chapel, and the bells of St. Peter's Basilica pealed, signalling that cardinals had chosen a new pope to lead the troubled Roman Catholic Church after only five ballots.
The decision by 115 cardinal electors came sooner than many faithful expected because of the large number of possible frontrunners identified before the vote to replace Pope Benedict, who resigned in February.
The name of the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics was expected to be announced in around half an hour from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica.
The secret conclave began on Tuesday night with a first ballot in the Renaissance splendor of the chapel and four ballots were held on Wednesday. The white smoke indicated the new pontiff had obtained the required two thirds majority in the fifth ballot.
Following a split ballot when they were first shut away amid the chapel's Renaissance splendor on Tuesday evening, the cardinal electors held a first full day of deliberations on Wednesday. Black smoke rose after the morning session to signal no decision.
Cheers arose from hundreds of people sheltering from incessant rain under a sea of umbrellas in St. Peter's Square as the white smoke billowed from the narrow chimney.
The cardinals had faced a tough task in finding a leader capable of overcoming crises caused by priestly child abuse and a leak of secret papal documents that uncovered corruption and rivalry inside the Church government or Curia.
The wave of problems are thought to have contributed to Pope Benedict's decision to become the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.
The last four popes were all elected within two or three days.
Seven ballots have been required on average over the last nine conclaves. Benedict was clear frontrunner in 2005 and elected after only four ballots.
The cardinals were shut inside for the secret election under Michelangelo's luminous frescos on Tuesday after a day of religious pomp and prayer to prepare for the task.
The initial inconclusive vote about two hours later was seen as a way of filtering the choice down to frontrunners for discussions among the supporters of the various candidates.
No hint emerged before the pope was chosen. The Vatican had taken precautions, including electronic jamming devices, to prevent any leaks from inside the conclave.
The new pope will take up a burden that Benedict declared in February was beyond his physical capabilities.