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The surprise selection on Wednesday of an Argentine, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, as the new pope shifted the gravity of the Roman Catholic Church from Europe to Latin America in one fell swoop, and served as an emphatic salute to the growing power of Latinos across the Americas.

The new pope took the name Francis and is the 266th pontiff of the church. He is the first pope from Latin America, and the first member of the Jesuit order to lead the church.

“I would like to thank you for your embrace,” the new pope, dressed in white, said in Italian from the balcony on St. Peter’s Basilica as thousands cheered joyously below. “My brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am.”

The selection electrified Latinos from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, and raised the hopes especially of those in Latin America, where 4 of every 10 of the world’s Catholics now live.

But the choice also may provide a strategic boost to the church in the United States, where its following would have lost ground in recent decades were it not for the influx of Latino immigrants, who have increasingly asserted themselves as a cultural and political force, and played a critical role in President Obama’s re-election.

The significance of the choice was not lost on church leaders. “It’s been more than 500 years since the first evangelization, and this is the first time that there is a pope from Latin America,” said Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who is originally from Mexico.

“It’s a huge role that we never had before,” he said.

The new pope, known for his simple, pastoral ways and his connection to the poor, is in some ways a contrast to his predecessor, Benedict XVI, an aloof theologian who resigned the office — the first pope to do so in 598 years — saying he no longer felt up to the rigors of the job. Read more…

As published in www.nytimes.com on March 13, 2013 (a version of this article appeared in print on March 14, 2013, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: New Pope Shifts Church’s Center of Gravity Away From Europe).

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