Conservative German cardinal elected pope

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Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a doctrinal conservative and ally of the late John Paul II, led his first papal Mass on Wednesday after being elected pontiff on Tuesday night.

The white-haired, German-born theologian, told cardinals that “On one hand I have a sense of inadequacy and human turmoil at the responsibility entrusted to me” but that “on the other hand, I feel living in me a deep gratitude to God who does not abandon his flock but guides them always.”

He was elected in the fourth ballot of a conclave attended by 115 cardinal-electors from 52 countries in the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, in a step that dismayed Roman Catholic progressives but was applauded by defenders of church orthodoxy. It was the fastest election since the choice of Pius XII in 1939.

Cardinal Ratzinger, 78, who announced he was taking the name of Pope Benedict XVI, paid immediate tribute to his Polish predecessor. “Dear brothers and sisters, after the great Pope John Paul II, the cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord,” he told a vast crowd in St Peter's Square in Rome.

Cardinal Ratzinger served for 24 years as head of John Paul's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's agency for doctrinal orthodoxy. His election is likely to unnerve many lay Catholics hoping for a more progressive successor.

It also signals that the church intends to make a priority of strengthening Catholicism in its European heartland, which now accounts for only 25 per cent of Catholics. The new Pope-cracked down on dissident theologians and supported John Paul's efforts to assert Vatican control over national churches.

He took a controversial stance on some international issues, declaring he did not support Turkey's efforts to join the European Union. He dismayed leaders of other world faiths in 2000 when his agency published a document Dominus Iesus that argued other religions could not offer salvation independent of Christianity.

It appears likely the cardinal-electors had set out to choose a pontiff who would not dominate the church for as long as did John Paul, who was 58 when he was elected in 1978 and became the third longest-serving Pope. Above all, the choice of Cardinal Ratzinger signals continuity with John Paul's policies of theological conservatism, strict orthodoxy on sexual morality, justice for the poor and peace.

In Rome, tens of thousands of people in St Peter's Square cheered as the great bells of the basilica rang, signalling the cardinals had reached their decision.

“Long live the Pope!” cried a contingent of Polish pilgrims.

Praise for the cardinals' choice came from George W. Bush, US president, who called him a “man of great wisdom and knowledge”, adding: “He's a man who serves the Lord.”

Under the church's rules, the new Pope needed to be chosen by a two-thirds majority amounting to 77 cardinals. The speed with which the electoral college reached its decision was intended to send a strong message of unity to the world's 1.1bn Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, the new Pope will have to grapple with serious divisions over social and ethical issues that widened in the church during the 26-year reign of John Paul, who died onApril 2.

Soon after the cardinals' decision, bells began to ring at Catholic churches round the world. For several minutes, there was great tension among the crowds at St Peter's as smoke billowed out of the chimney above the Sistine Chapel. White smoke signals the election of a Pope, black smoke that no decision has been reached. But the smoke that rose into the sky at about 6pm Rome time was of an indistinct colour, creating a confusion that mounted as the bells of St Peter's did not at first ring out.

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