The new pontiff - a lifelong Argentinian with his family heritage in Italy, which produced most of the past millennium's popes - was mostly unsmiling and a tad stiff, signaling that he might not be the charismatic and telegenic figure some had desired. But observers think Pope Francis could usher in dramatic change by expanding the church's presence in poor urban neighborhoods, in keeping with centuries-old Jesuit traditions.
"This ain't Francis I so much as John Paul I," tweeted Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based and globally known blogger and pundit on Vatican affairs. He explained on his Whispers in the Loggia website that the new pope is likely to replicate the soft-spoken, poverty-fighting papacy that was expected from John Paul I, who died of a heart attack just 33 days after he was installed in 1978. Palmo wrote that the unadorned, stark-white vestments Pope Francis wore Wednesday night before a cheering throng in St. Peter's Square were a symbol of humility.
The College of Cardinals is known to confound the pundits, and Wednesday's surprise choice of its Argentine colleague was no exception. Although several insider accounts say that Bergoglio was the clear runner-up in 2005 to Joseph Ratzinger - who resigned last month after eight years as Pope Benedict XVI, citing ill health - most experts thought mistakenly that his time had passed.
"He's the face of the global Catholic Church - the face of the South," Miguel Diaz, former U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See and professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton, enthused by telephone last night. He said the ascension of Pope Francis will resonate in Latin America and with Hispanics, who now comprise roughly half of U.S. Catholics.
During his time as archbishop in Buenos Aires, then-Cardinal Bergoglio not only rode the bus to work but also eschewed the archbishop's palace, living instead in a modest apartment and cooking his own meals. Frequently, his concern for the poor translated to strong, liberal-leaning policy positions, such as opposing harsh austerity measures to deal with a debt crisis a decade ago.
"We live, apparently, in the most unequal part of the world, which has grown the most yet reduced misery the least," the future Pope Francis said in 2007. "The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers."
That hardly made Bergoglio a hero of the left. For one thing, many activists accuse him of silence as a high-ranking Argentinian church official during the violent rule of the right-wing military junta blamed for the disappearance of thousands in the 1970s.
A recent book said that in 1976, the future pope withdrew protection from two priests working in the poorest sections of Buenos Aires who were subsequently kidnapped, a claim that a spokesman dismissed as "old slander" when it was first alleged in 2005. A biography of Bergoglio later said he had worked behind the scenes to secure the priests' release.
Much more recently, the now-pontiff clashed with Argentina's liberal-leaning government on issues such as gay marriage. "This is not a simple political fight; it is a destructive proposal to God's plan," Bergoglio said in 2010 as he bitterly - and unsuccessfully - fought the nation's "Equal Marriage Law," which sanctioned same-sex nuptials. He argued at the same time that adoption by gay parents harms children.
Some church pundits feared that Bergoglio simply wasn't the bold choice that the struggling church needs right now. The conservative writer Michael Brendan Dougherty opined on Slate.com Wednesday night that Pope Francis was a repudiation of the man who beat him in 2005, Benedict XVI, and would be "a transitional figure, unlikely to affect major reform at the top of the church" - in part because of his advanced age.
Indeed, the Argentine political battles of the past may seem tame compared with what confronts Pope Francis today: a devastating and global child-sexual-abuse and coverup scandal, which - coupled with rigidly conservative stances on issues from contraception to the role of women - has weakened the church in North America and Europe, as well as bureaucratic and fiscal scandal in the Vatican.
Diaz, the former ambassador, said Bergoglio's selection of the name Francis had deep symbolism, especially because of St. Francis of Assisi and his famous dream in which God commanded him to rebuild the church.
"The pope has tremendously hard work ahead, in rebuilding human relations and rebuilding trust," he said.
On Twitter: @Will_Bunch