Jorge Mario Bergoglio arrives for a meeting of pre-conclave on March 9, 2013 at the Vatican. Bergoglio was selected to be the Church's next Pope on Wednesday. (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)
VATICAN CITY (NBC NEWS) -- Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was named leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics on Wednesday after being elected pope. He will be known as Pope Francis I.
The 76-year-old - the first Jesuit, the first South American and the first non-European pope of the modern era - was introduced to the world from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica in front of tens of thousands gathered in the square below.
In Italian, he joked with the rain-soaked crowd before delivering his blessing, saying: "As you know the duty of the conclave is to give Rome a bishop. It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world."
"Pray for me and I will see you soon," he told the crowd, asking them to also pray for his predecessor Benedict XVI, who abdicated on Feb. 28. "Have a good evening and rest well."
About an hour before he emerged, white smoke rose above the Sistine Chapel and bells rang out across Rome to signal a decision had been made, prompting cheers and wild applause.
Seen as a compassionate conservative, Francis is the son of a railway worker and one of five siblings. He has a chemistry degree.
He prizes simplicity and humility and is expected to encourage priests to do shoe-leather evangelization, according to his biographer.
Francis has only one lung, the other having been removed due to an infection when he was a teenager.
He reportedly came in second during the 2005 balloting that ultimately elected Benedict XVI.
Smoke billowed from the chimney at 7:07 p.m. (2:07 p.m. ET) on the second day of behind-closed-doors voting and marked the beginning to a new era for a church combating scandal and internal strife.
The cardinals are thought to have taken five ballots to reach the two-thirds of the vote necessary for a decision.
Before being introduced from the balcony, the Argentine cardinal was taken from the Sistine Chapel into a side room called the "Room of Tears" to be dressed in the papal clothes.
His appearance was heralded by a Latin announcement beginning with the phrase "Habemus Papam!" meaning, "We have a pope!"
George Weigel, NBC News' Vatican analyst, said Pope Francis was the first Jesuit to become pontiff.
"He's a very brave man," he said. "He will be a great defender of religion around the world."
"The papacy has moved to the New World. The church has a new pope with a new name," he added. "I think it speaks to the church's commitment to the poor of the world and compassion in a world that often needs a lot of healing."
Edward Egan, the Archbishop Emeritus of New York, said this was "the moment of Latin America."
"I can assure you he's not feeble in any way at 76," he told NBC's Brian Williams.
'You're going to like him a lot'
Egan said Francis was "a man who calmly stands for what's right and just," and someone with "great compassion for the poor."
"I cannot tell you, Brian, how delighted I am," he said. "This is a man who I know and who was very, very good to me."
Egan said Francis was a "very good friend of mine," and he had "immense admiration for him."
"I think you're going to like him a lot," he added.
Eric LeCompte, executive director of poverty campaign group Jubilee USA, said: " His name choice of Francis signifies that his papacy will have a great devotion to justice, peace and to the poor.
"He is also the first pope of the global south and he will articulate a vision of an international economy that serves and protects the poor."
Now known as Pope Emeritus, Francis' predecessor Benedict watched Wednesday's events from a temporary lakeside residence at Castel Gandolfo while his permanent living quarters inside Vatican City are refurbished.
The behind-the-scenes ballot process that took place in the Sistine Chapel should still remain a secret. Both the cardinals and staff working alongside them swore an oath of secrecy as the conclave got under way, with the threat of ex-communication for anyone breaking the church's ancient code.
Such is the importance of secrecy that Vatican officials installed jamming devices to prevent the use of cellphones by cardinals or hidden microphones by anyone wanting to hear their deliberations.
NBC News' Peter Jeary contributed to this report.