Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected in a surprise choice to be the new leader of the troubled Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, the first non-European pontiff in nearly 1,300 years, and said he would take the name Francis I.

Pope Francis, 76, appeared on the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica just over an hour after white smoke poured from a chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel to signal he had been chosen to lead the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

Francis, speaking Italian with a slight Latin American accent, joked with the 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."

The new pontiff, dressed in the white robes of a pope for the first time, then said a prayer for Benedict, the pope emeritus.

Pope Francis replaces Pope Benedict, who resigned last month.

Francis becomes the 266th pontiff in the Church's 2,000-year history at a time of great crisis, with the church under fire over a child sex abuse scandal. Although a conservative, he is seen as a reformer and was not among the small group of frontrunners identified before the election.

Bergoglio is the oldest of most of the possible candidates and was barely mentioned in feverish speculation about the top contenders before the conclave.

Francis is the first non-European pope since Syrian born Gregory III in the eighth century, and the third successive non-Italian pontiff.

Presented by Adam Justice