Obama, other world leaders hail election of Francis

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In this image made from video provided by CTV, Pope Francis celebrates his inaugural Mass with cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel, at the Vatican, Thursday, March 14, 2013. AP PHOTO/CTV

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina—US President Barack Obama and Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner led world leaders in hailing the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina as the first Latin American Pope, urging him to work for religious reconciliation and peace.

“As the first Pope from the Americas, his selection… speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world,” Obama said in a statement, hailing Pope Francis as a “champion of the poor.”

“Just as I appreciated our work with Pope Benedict XVI, I look forward to working with His Holiness to advance peace, security and dignity for our fellow human beings, regardless of their faith,” he said.

US Vice President Joe Biden, a Catholic who will lead the US delegation to the new Pope’s inauguration Mass on Tuesday, said he would extend his prayers as the Pontiff “takes on this holy responsibility.”

“I am happy to have the chance to personally relay my well wishes, and those of the American people, when I travel to Rome,” Biden said.

Tremendous responsibility

Kirchner, who is Catholic but does not have a warm personal relationship with the new Pontiff, wished the 76-year-old Jesuit a “fruitful pastoral mission.”

She noted that the new Pope had “tremendous responsibility on his shoulders, seeking justice, equality, brotherhood and peace among mankind.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the “hopes of millions of believers in Germany and the world” now rested with the new Pope while European Union President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso urged the Pontiff to try to bring the “world’s people and religions closer together.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the United Nations and the Roman Catholic Church shared the “common goals” of promoting peace, social justice and human rights, and the eradication of poverty and hunger.

“We also share the conviction that we can only resolve the interconnected challenges of today’s world through dialogue,” Ban said.

French President Francois Hollande said Paris looked forward to pursuing a “confident dialogue” with the Holy See.

In Latin America, the leaders of Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico joined the clergy in hailing Bergoglio, who was elected after five rounds of voting in the Vatican—one more than when predecessor Benedict XVI was chosen in 2005.

“The faithful eagerly await the arrival of Pope Francis to Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day in July,” Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said, citing her nation as having “the greatest number of Catholics in the world.”

Cardinal Odilo Scherer, the archbishop of Sao Paulo, had been considered a contender for the papacy.

“We wanted a Brazilian Pope but the Argentines are our brothers, our neighbors. It’s all good,” said Rosivaldo dos Santos, 38, at Metropolitan Cathedral in Sao Paulo.

Extremely happy

Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa exulted “Long live Francis!” on his Twitter account—one of millions of tweets sent about the historic election that ended with white smoke billowing out of a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel.

“We are extremely happy because our Lord has cast his eyes on Latin America and we are extremely grateful to God for that because we have a Latin American Pope,” said Archbishop of San Salvador Jose Luis Escobar.

In Africa, where the number of Catholics is steadily growing, the president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops Conference said that, while some had hoped for a younger Pontiff, all expect “great things” from Pope Francis.

“The symbolism of choosing a Pope from Latin America delights and touches us, most particularly in developing countries,” said Archbishop Stephen Breslin.

Fr. John Dingi, of St. Matthew’s Catholic Cathedral in downtown Khartoum, where Christians are a tiny minority in Islamist-run Sudan, also expressed his joy.

“We are very happy,” Dingi said. “It’s good because, you see, Christianity is now growing very fast in Africa, in Latin America, in Asia.”

Justin Welby, the new archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the world’s Anglicans, wished “every blessing” to the new Pope and said he looked forward to meeting him.

Troubling track record

The new Pope, however, will face renewed pressure to better handle sex abuse scandals involving pedophile priests, and avoid cover-ups by senior clergymen.

The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests warned that Jesuits had a “troubled track record on children’s safety” and urged Pope Francis to seize an “enormous opportunity and duty to help prevent heinous assaults against kids.”

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