BRISBANE Archbishop Mark Coleridge admitted to being "seriously surprised" after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was announced as the Roman Catholic Church's new leader.
The election of Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, by the papal conclave created a number of firsts.
Pope Francis becomes the first pontiff from Latin America, the first Jesuit, the first to take the name Francis and the first non-European in more than 1000 years to lead the church.
Latin America has the largest number of Catholics in the world with 483 million - 41% of all Catholics on the planet - with Europe a distant second on 277 million, or 24%.
Archbishop Coleridge said prior to the announcement he thought Cardinal Bergoglio, at 76, was "perhaps too old" for the role.
"However, I find myself now seriously pleased with the choice the cardinals have made. I think it is a piece of lateral thinking that is very welcome and brings a freshness to the papacy that is also very welcome," Archbishop Coleridge said.
"To see the new Pope appear on the balcony of St Peter's in the simple white soutane and to speak as simply to the people as he did evoked the memory of Pope John Paul XXIII and then that he invited the crowd into a moment of silence to pray with him before he blessed them again was very striking.
"So here is a Pope renowned for his simplicity of life. We saw signs of that as he appeared on the balcony and we can only hope that that simplicity, the simplicity of the Gospel and of Jesus Christ himself, will typify the pontificate."
Prime Minister Julia Gillard described the vote as a "genuinely historic" moment.
"The election of a Pope from the 'new world' is an occasion of genuinely historic proportions," Ms Gillard said in a statement.
"Today is an exciting day for Australian Catholics and perhaps especially for Australians of Argentinean descent. My thoughts are with them all."
Ms Gillard told the Parliament in a speech before question time on Thursday that former governor-general William Dean and his wife would represent Australia at Pope Francis's induction mass on March 19.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, himself a Jesuit, spoke glowingly about the new pontiff. He made particular reference to the new pontiff's humble origins.
"He has been a holy and simple man who has practised what he preached," Mr Abbott told the lower house.
Queensland Senator Barnaby Joyce said the conclave's decision was proof the Catholic Church was a "dynamic institution" that was moving with the times.
The lifelong Roman Catholic, who served as president of the St George branch of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, said he would be a close observer of Pope Francis's reign.
"It will be interesting; he will be one of theological conservatism, social liberalism," Senator Joyce said.
"We're talking about someone who has made a name for working with the poor, who has had very distinct things to say about social justice, especially during the Global Financial Crisis. So, we will all be fascinated to see what the direction will be."
The always colourful Senator Joyce couldn't resist the opportunity to draw a comparison between the papal conclave and the ongoing Labor leadership speculation.
"I've had a quick glance around the back of the building to see if there was a chimney coming out of the Prime Minister's office and no luck so far," he quipped.
Melbourne Archbishop Denis Hart, the president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, said the announcement brought "great joy and hope" to Catholics around the world."For two weeks the Catholics of the world have been without the spiritual father of their family," he said.
"We have been looking forward to this special moment when our new Holy Father, chief teacher and shepherd would be announced.
"The announcement brings great joy and hope and readiness to walk with him on the way to Jesus Christ."
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