White smoke was seen rising over the Vatican on Wednesday, signaling the election of a new pope following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI as head of the Catholic Church and spiritual figurehead to 1.2 billion people around the world.
After more than an hour of tense speculation in the streets of Rome, Vatican officials revealed the new pope is Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, who was elected by a two-thirds vote of the church’s top leaders. The 76-year-old Jesuit, the first pope from that Catholic order, has worked for years as the church’s top official in Buenos Aires. He will now be known as Pope Francis I.
The election of the church’s new leader is not just a spiritual event: the Catholic Church’s governing body, known as the Holy See, is treated as a state unto itself, so the election of a new pope is also the election of a new head of state. The church’s statehood is often cited by critics who note it has often proved an impediment to prosecuting priests found to have sexually abused children in countries around the world.
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