Photograph by Natacha Pisarenko, AP

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Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected to be pope on Wednesday.

Photograph by Natacha Pisarenko, AP

Selection of Argentine Pope Sends Global Messages

New pope is the first from Latin America but has strong European connections.

In announcing Wednesday that it had selected the first ever Latin American pope, the Catholic Church's cardinal electors sent a handful of bold messages about church geography, including that its future lies outside Europe and that the hierarchy wants to repair ties with the Americas.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a 76-year-old who will be called Pope Francis, hails from Argentina.

"My first reaction is that it's a symbolic move to ease the papacy out of Italian hands," said Philip Jenkins, an expert in global religion at Baylor University. Many of the cardinals on the short list to replace Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned last month, were Italian. (Watch: A look inside the Vatican.)

"It's the first shift beyond Europe, and so it's historic," said Jenkins. (Related: Science Behind the Vatican's Smoke.)

At the same time, the choice of Bergoglio—who is of Italian descent and who is from what is likely the most Italian country outside Italy—represents a safer and more traditional choice to lead the church than someone from the United States or Africa.

"He's a bridge figure," said Jenkins. "If you're Italian you can look at this guy and say he's from an Italian family that made good in another country. But if you're Nigerian or Sri Lankan, you can see it as the church's unprecedented move outside Europe.

"In that case, whether or not this is a good or bad guy, it looks like a decisive break."

Jennifer Hughes, an associate professor of history at the University of California, Riverside, is more dubious of how the new pope will be received in Asia and Africa, where the church is experiencing rapid growth.

"I don't expect worldwide celebration of a non-European pope because he is of European heritage," she said. "He's still a white pope with an Italian name."

Though he is likely to be embraced in South America, Jenkins said that Argentina is more similar to Europe in many ways: "It's basically a European country that is close to Antarctica."

Indeed, unlike much of South America, where Catholicism has been giving way to newer religious traditions like Pentecostalism and evangelical Christianity, in Argentina the Roman Catholic Church has been competing with a rising secularism, just as is happening in Europe.

In Argentina, Bergoglio railed against the legalization of gay marriage in 2010.

And yet Hughes said Bergoglio's selection is more a gesture toward Catholics in North and South America, many of whom have become disillusioned with the church over its handling of the sex abuse crisis and over its emphasis of conservative stances on hot-button issues like homosexuality.

"The church is in crisis and there's a growing chasm between the American church and Rome," said Hughes. She called Benedict "a hardliner, which did not go over well with Americans."

The hope seems to be that Pope Francis will go over better, even if he's very much at home in Europe.