Hailing from Argentina, Cardinal Bergoglio – now Pope Francis, is known as a humble man who forgoes a chauffeur to take the bus to work. As the first Jesuit pope, it's expected Francis will encourage priests to evangelize, educating others in the Catholic faith. NBC's Anne Thompson reports
VATICAN CITY — Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the first non-European pope in more than 1,000 years on Wednesday, signaling the beginning of a new era for a church combating scandal and internal strife.
Described as a conservative with "great compassion," the 76-year-old will be known as His Holiness Pope Francis. He will be installed at the Vatican on Tuesday.
The new pontiff named himself after the humble Catholic friar St. Francis of Assisi. President Barack Obama hailed the new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics as a "champion of the poor."
The first Latin American pope was introduced from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.
There was an audible gasp from the rain-soaked crowd - an indication that he had not been a widely tipped choice - followed by a roar and wild applause.
In Italian, he seemed to address his outsider status by joking: "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."
Newly-elected Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio speaks to St. Peter's Square and delivers a blessing after being elected as Pope Francis I.
“Pray for me and I will see you soon," he added, asking Catholics to also pray for his predecessor Benedict XVI, who abdicated on Feb. 28. "Have a good evening and rest well.”
His first act on Thursday will be to visit his predecessor, the Pope Emeritus, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan told reporters later.
A vocal advocate for Argentina’s poor during the economic crises that struck the country during the 1970s, Francis is the first Jesuit pope.
Known for his humility, Francis is the son of a railway worker and one of five siblings. He has a chemistry degree.
Francis has only one fully-functioning lung, the other having been partially removed due to an infection when he was a teenager.
He prizes simplicity and is expected to encourage priests to do shoe-leather evangelization, according to his biographer.
Shortly after his election, Francis skipped the limousine and chose instead to ride on the last shuttle bus with other cardinals to go back to the Vatican for a meal.
"And as the last bus pulls up, guess who gets off? It's Pope Francis. I guess he told the driver 'That's OK, I'll just go with the boys,'" Dolan told reporters.
Later, during the dinner, Dolan said Francis showed his humorous side.
"We toasted him and when he toasted us he said: 'May God forgive you,' which brought the house down," he said.
About an hour before Francis emerged on the balcony, white smoke rose above the Sistine Chapel and bells rang out across Rome to signal a decision had been made.
The unveiling of the new pope was moment of pure joy for the 100,000 pilgrims, tourists and other onlookers in St Peter's Square.
"Who is this?" asked Deirdre Sweeney from Boston, Mass., when Francis first walked onto the balcony.
"Argentinian!" shouted a man nearby.
Americans were among the tens of thousands who gathered to witness the unveiling of Pope Francis.
“I think this is wonderful,” said Sweeney’s husband, Kevin. “It's an incredible breakthrough. It's a great recognition for the church that the church is not euro-centric anymore."
Another man shouted: "It’s very gutsy that he chose the name Francis, he’s going to be the first Francis. He wants to be a humble pope and build the church up, from a time of ruin, like St. Francis of Assisi."
Smoke billowed from the chimney at 7:07 p.m. local time (2:07 p.m. ET) on the second day of behind-closed-doors voting.
The cardinals are thought to have taken five ballots to reach the two-thirds of the vote necessary for a decision.
The new pontiff's debut was heralded by a Latin announcement beginning with the phrase "Habemus Papam!" meaning, "We have a pope!"
George Weigel, NBC News' Vatican analyst, said Francis would be "a great defender of religion around the world.”
“The papacy has moved to the New World. The church has a new pope with a new name,” he added. “I think it speaks to the church’s commitment to the poor of the world and compassion in a world that often needs a lot of healing.”
NBC News Special Report: The Vatican announces that Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been elected as the new head of the Catholic Church.
Obama said the choice of the first pope from the Americas spoke "to the strength and vitality" of a region "that is increasingly shaping our world."
"Alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day," the president said in a statement.
Now known as Pope Emeritus, Francis' predecessor Benedict watched Wednesday's events from a temporary lakeside residence at Castel Gandolfo while his permanent living quarters inside Vatican City are refurbished.
The behind-the-scenes ballot process that took place in the Sistine Chapel should still remain a secret. Both the cardinals and staff working alongside them swore an oath of secrecy as the conclave got under way, with the threat of ex-communication for anyone breaking the church's ancient code.
NBC News' Yuka Tachibana and Richard O'Kelly, and Reuters contributed to this report.
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected to lead the Catholic Church following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.
This story was originally published on Wed Mar 13, 2013 4:14 AM EDT