VATICAN CITY — With a Colombian flag tied around her shoulders, Sister Laura Teresa took a last look back at the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, where, moments before, Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio emerged to greet the world as Pope Francis.
He is the 266th pope, but the first Latin American, the first Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope and the first non-European since 741.
“Yes, there is history here tonight,” said the religious sister from Bogota.
Speaking amid a din from the estimated 200,000 umbrella-wielding onlookers making their way out of the vast horseshoe-shaped piazza after the end of the conclave, Sister Laura said that “I am surprised and happy that there is a Holy Father from South America.”
When French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran stepped onto the red-curtained balcony, about an hour after the cold, wet throng erupted into cheers at the sight of white smoke puffing out of the chimney on the Sistine Chapel roof, there was hurried discussion and, it seems, as much surprise as elation when the name "Bergoglio" was called out by the cardinal.
Speaking before the result was announced, Tatum McWhirter, a student from Hastings, Neb., attending the Lateran University in Rome, said that predicting a winner was difficult.
“I think it is hard to tell; it might be someone no one is expecting,” she said presciently.
Yet while few Vatican pundits gave Cardinal Bergoglio much of a chance before the conclave began yesterday, the ascetic Argentinian is rumored to have come second to then-Cardinal Ratzinger during the last conclave in 2005; so perhaps the outcome should not be so much of a surprise.
And if the crowd seemed quiet at first, the cheers soon came, particularly from the Spanish-speaking sections of the vast crowd.
Cheers also came from those from other parts of the world.
Aileen Joy Ribera from Vigan in the Philippines said she was hopeful that Manila’s Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, a new cardinal and aged just 55, could have emerged as pope.
She conceded, though, that “whoever is chosen we believe is chosen by the Holy Spirit, so we will be happy for that.”
The Philippines has Asia’s biggest Catholic population, but, in that part of the world, relations with China and the state-run Church there will likely be a top item on Pope Francis’ to-do list.
Originally from Beijing, Chinese-born Sister Maria, who asked her full Chinese name not be used, has lived in Rome for four years.
“I want to thank God for this special historic occasion and that I am here today,” she said, breathless and beaming, as she snapped iPhone photos while being interviewed.
“When I saw the white smoke there, at first I could not believe,” she added, pointing to the nearby video screen set up to help the crowd see the smoke signals from the roof above.
Shanghai resident Hao Wang is currently in Rome on vacation, after visiting with a Chinese friend who lives in France. “I’m not Catholic, but this seems like a special time. I am lucky to encounter this celebration,” she said, photographing the rain-sodden crowd in St. Peter’s Square.
Africa also had its papabili, with Cardinal Peter Turkson from Ghana among those mentioned.
But, for some, the new Pope’s country of origin is a side issue.
Father Omina Leo, who is from Torit in South Sudan, said, “It doesn’t matter if he comes from Germany, from the U.K., from Africa.”
Added Father Leo, “What matters is that he is charismatic, that he is a leader.”
Register correspondent Simon Roughneen covers Southeast Asia for several publications
and is on assignment in Rome for the Register during the conclave period.
He’s on twitter @SimonRoughneen, and his articles can be seen at SimonRoughneen.com.