The Catholic Church entered a new era on Wednesday as 115 cardinals elected the first Latin  American pope.

Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 76, who will be Pope Francis, was chosen after a two-day long conclave. He will be the first  non-European pope in 1,300 years.

After Pope Benedict’s surprise resignation last month, many speculated that the Church would look beyond Europe in efforts to refresh its image which has been plagued by sex abuse scandals, bureaucratic infighting, financial difficulties and the rise of secularism.

Many Latin Americans were hoping that this year could mark an opportunity to break Europe’s grip on the papacy.

But Catholic Carlos Giralt said the pope’s nationality wasn’t the most important factor.

“That he’s Argentine is totally secondary. The important thing is that he is the most prepared for this period, and ready in the best way and in the best faith, for this special time for the Church,” said Giralt.

 

 

Argentine priest Jose D’Andrea said he hoped the new pope would follow in Pope Benedict’s footsteps.

“Well I think he should have the same qualities as the pope who resigned concerning the living tradition of the Church, to be a classic and conservative man regarding the values of the gospel, because if not there wouldn’t be any  connection with Jesus Christ, right? With the principle,” said D’Andrea.

Catholic Marta Dalberto said that she hoped that Bergoglio would hold the position longer than his predecessor.

“I hope and trust in God that he will be a pope that lasts for many years because this poor pope [Benedict] with his illness has left us a bit unprotected all of a sudden,” said Dalberto.

Bergoglio was born in Buenos Aires on December 17, 1936, and was one of five children in middle class family.

A respiratory illness, which he suffered during his youth, left him with only one lung.

Having studied chemical engineering, Bergoglio entered the seminary in the Villa Devoto neighbourhood of his  native city. In 1958 he joined the Jesuit order, and went on to study humanities in Chile before returning to Buenos Aires in 1960 where he got a degree in philosophy.

In 1969, he was ordained a priest and just four years later was named provincial superior of Argentina, a post he held until 1979.

In 1997 he was named coadjutor archbishop of Cardinal Antonio Quarracino, whom he automatically replaced as Archbishop of Buenos Aires when the cardinal died in 1998.

He was the first from the Jesuit Order to ever hold this  post.

Three years later in 2001, he was made cardinal by Pope John Paul II. In the same year he stepped in to take over the Synod of Bishops at the last minute, and carried out the task to much acclaim.

During Argentina’s economic crisis in 2002, Bergoglio attacked the nation’s politicians in his homilies, pointing to the terrible poverty and marginalization within the country.

His name appeared as one of the possible successors to John Paul II in 2005.

As a region, Latin America represents 42 percent of the  world’s 1.2 billion-strong Catholic population.