VATICAN CITY — Joseph Ratzinger, a renowned theologian and hard-line enforcer of Catholic Church doctrine for the last two decades, was chosen Tuesday to succeed his friend and close ally Pope John Paul II. Ratzinger, 78, became Pope Benedict XVI, the 265th leader of the world's largest and most powerful Christian institution.
The swift election of the German-born Ratzinger by the church's College of Cardinals was widely seen as a vote for continuity of John Paul's policies, signaling an endorsement of the church's most conservative teachings.
White smoke indicating the pope's election puffed from a skinny chimney atop the Sistine Chapel at 5:50 p.m., and onlookers started to cheer. Five minutes later, the great bell of St. Peter's began to toll.
Applause and chants of "Viva il papa!" rang out. People from across Rome converged on St. Peter's Square, running through streets and across bridges over the Tiber River to join the swelling crowd.
After Ratzinger's name was read to the assembled multitude, he stepped onto a balcony and described himself as "a simple, humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord."
"The fact that the Lord can work and act even with insufficient means consoles me," said the new pope, dressed in flowing white robes and the scarlet papal cape and golden stole, "and above all I entrust myself to your prayers."
White-haired and slightly hunched, Ratzinger smiled broadly and waved somewhat awkwardly. Where John Paul regularly embraced and played enthusiastically to his audiences, Pope Benedict XVI appeared a bit stiff and kept his remarks short.
The new pope will lead a church in crisis, sharply divided after John Paul's 26-year reign. Despite John Paul's personal magnetism, many of the church's 1 billion members are seriously disaffected, the faith is losing ground in many parts of the world to other religions and is under threat from radical Islam and secularism. Reaction to the election of the oldest pope in two centuries was mixed, both in a St. Peter's Square packed with people eager to hear the news, and around the world.
Liberal Roman Catholics who had hoped for change and more openness toward the role of women in the church, birth control and homosexuality, were disappointed and predicted a status quo -- or worse, a leap backward -- that would drive even more people from the church.
"This is a disaster," said Rea Howarth, co-director of the Quixote Center, a Catholic lay organization based in Brentwood, Md., that is involved in human rights work in Latin America. "The church has lost so much credibility. Now I'm afraid that more Catholics will just turn their backs and walk away."
Others said Ratzinger was the logical choice to succeed John Paul given his closeness to the late pontiff, his similar views on key issues affecting the church and the increasingly prominent role he played in church affairs as John Paul's health deteriorated.
"The cardinals chose the best known and most respected of their number, a man they each know as a great listener and a sympathetic listener," said George Wiegel, one of John Paul's biographers. "This was not only a tremendous affirmation of the past 26 1/2 years, it was a vote of confidence in Joseph Ratzinger as the man best fitted to give an evangelical thrust to this papacy."
Meeting secretly for less than 24 hours, the 115 cardinals locked inside the Sistine Chapel elected Ratzinger on the fourth ballot, then burned the papers on which each had penned a name in disguised handwriting.
Initial details quickly emerged on how the cardinals reached the two-thirds majority needed for victory. While many observers had thought Ratzinger would be too polarizing a figure at this crucial juncture in church history, several cardinals appeared to have fallen into line behind the image of a strong leader who represented unambiguous moral authority.
On the morning of his election, Ratzinger had breakfast with four cardinals from Asia and Africa and also Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles. At breakfast, and throughout all the meetings leading to the conclave, Ratzinger was able to address each cardinal by name and spoke to them in shared languages, Mahony said.
Ratzinger's tough-minded advocacy of the primacy of Catholicism evidently appealed to cardinals in those parts of the developing world where holders of the faith are under attack by militant Islam or repressive regimes.
He drew those battle lines on Monday in a Mass that opened the conclave. Before a worldwide television audience, Ratzinger used his homily to demand rigid adherence to the traditional teachings of the church, too often buffeted, he said, by "the waves of today's fashions or the latest novelties."
Ratzinger said the Mass, directed the conclave and earlier delivered an emotional homily at John Paul's funeral -- all as part of his position as dean of the College of Cardinals. That gave him a unique and powerful platform from which to win the votes of fellow cardinals.