A rainswept but packed St Peter's Square erupted with joy and not a little shock last night as clouds of white smoke told the crowds – and the rest of the world – that a new pontiff had been chosen on just the second day of voting.
But the noise that greeted the billowing smoke at 7.06pm was nothing compared to the sound that met Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires when he appeared on the balcony as the latest successor of St Peter and leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics.
By 8.10pm local time when the newly-elected Pope Francis emerged in white papal robes to cheers of "Viva il Papa" ("Long live the Pope"), the crowds stretched back from the Piazza to the end of Via della Conciliazi-one, the 500-metre long road connecting the Vatican to the Tiber.
Cheering wildly, some of the faithful were so excited they downed their umbrellas despite the driving rain. Others burst into tears. One weeping nun was mouthing the words "Che meraviglia" ("How wonderful").
The name of the new pontiff had been announced in Latin moments earlier by the French cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran after he had declared "Habemus papam" ("We have a Pope").
Ten minutes later Francis I – the first from outside Europe in modern times, and the first Jesuit pontiff – appeared on the balcony looking vaguely stunned.
But within a minute or so he composed himself and spoke.
"Brothers and sisters, good evening. Thank you for the welcome." He even made a little joke, noting the cardinals had gathered to pick a bishop of Rome "but have chosen one from far away – but here I am".
Then he said: "Before everything, I would like to make a prayer for our emeritus bishop Benedict," in reference to his predecessor who quit last month.
After Francis's appearance, a brass band made up of the Vatican gendarmerie played in the square below next to helmeted Swiss guards and various divisions of the Italian military, who had earlier exchanged traditional greetings on the steps of the church.
After the burst of music Pope Francis I said: "Good night and rest well," before disappearing.
The choice of an Argentine pontiff seemed well-received by Church insiders. Father Giulio Albanese, director of the Catholic Missionary News Service Agency, said: "He is an extraordinary man: a Jesuit and a person with the ability to make the changes needed in the Church."
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said he was "struck by the simplicity" of the new pontiff.
The new Pope adopted the name of Francis, one of the Church's most revered saints who was a beggar in 13th-century Italy. The name is widely interpreted as sign of humility.
Since suffering an infection as a teenager, the 76-year-old has lived with only one functioning lung, although he is said to be in good physical shape.
Ahead of the surprise election of the Argentine cardinal, two figures were tipped: Italy's Angelo Scola (71) – who would have been the first Italian Pope for 35 years – and Brazilian Odilo Scherer.
Yesterday morning support for both was said to be slipping due to reminders of past scandals. Cardinal Scola, the Archbishop of Milan, was said by some to be too close to figures embroiled in an emerging health contracts scandal in the northern city. And links to the ultra-conservative Catholic lobbying group Communion and Liberation were not said to be helping his chances.
La Repubblica said Cardinal Scherer (63), archbishop of Sao Paolo, might be tainted by links to the scandal-hit Vatican Bank.
With news of the speedy choice of Benedict's successor, some pundits began to read more into Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi's comments earlier in the day that election of a pontiff could be days or hours away.
One leading Vaticanologist, Alberto Melloni, said the white smoke after the final vote of the day had seemed more likely due to the longer-than-usual time it had taken to complete earlier rounds.
Predecessor Benedict XVI was the clear front-runner in 2005 and elected after only four ballots.
Last night, the Church of Ireland's Primate of All Ireland, the Most Revd Richard Clarke, assured the new Pope of his prayers as he begins his new ministry.
"He has been a champion of the needs of the poor and dispossessed, and, in the simplicity of his own lifestyle, he has sought to reflect the life of the much-loved saint whose name he now carries in the future, Saint Francis," he said.
"As the Church of Ireland's Archbishop of Armagh, I extend also to Cardinal Sean Brady, to Jesuit friends throughout the island and to all the Roman Catholic people of Ireland, our best wishes, with the hopes and prayers of many fellow-Christians, as Pope Francis now embarks on the ministry to which he has been called."
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