By JOSH LEDERMAN
Pope Francis waves to the crowd from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican, Wednesday, March 13, 2013. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who chose the name of Francis is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama offered prayers and warm wishes Wednesday to the newly elected pope, applauding the selection of the first pope from the Americas as a sign of the region’s strength and vitality.
He said his joy on the historic election of former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, who chose the papal name Francis, was shared by millions of Hispanic Americans, the majority of whom are Roman Catholics.
“As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years — that in each other, we see the face of God,” Obama said in a statement.
Vice President Joe Biden, the first Catholic to be elected vice president, will lead the U.S. delegation to Francis’ installation in Rome, according to a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the trip had not been announced publicly. Although an official date hasn’t been released, the Vatican hinted that it would likely take place on Tuesday.
Calling the task of leading the modern Catholic Church “sacred work,” Obama said he looked forward to working with the new pope to promote peace, security and dignity for people of all faiths.
Cardinals in Rome elected the 76-year-old Bergoglio on Wednesday after a remarkably fast, five-ballot conclave. The son of an Italian immigrant, Bergoglio replaces retired Pope Benedict XVI, who last month became the first pope to resign in 600 years.
Leaders on Capitol Hill echoed Obama’s warm words and said they celebrated the historic nature of Bergoglio’s selection.
“I think that reaching out beyond the traditional continent of our church is another big step in the right direction for the church,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered wishes of “health, happiness and strength” as Bergoglio becomes the spiritual leader for more than 1 billion Catholics around the world.
Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.