The choice of a Latin American may be the most significant first. South America has more Catholics than any other continent.
Jorge Bergoglio, or Papa Francisco, as he is now known in Spanish-speaking countries, has spent his life in Argentina. He became Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998.
Around 90 per cent of Argentina's population is considered Catholic but only 10-20 per cent practice their faith.
Nevertheless, for Argentines, and for Latin Americans in general, the cardinals' choice will likely be greeted initially with joy, Viviana Patroni, a Latin America expert at York University told CBC News.
"It's a recognition not only of Latin America but of the need to address the major social problems that Latin America faces in a world that has grown increasingly unequal and unfair," says Argentina-born Patroni, now the co-ordinator of York's International Development Studies program.
Patroni adds that she wishes "the church would become more receptive of the demand for change from all sectors of society, including gay rights and women's rights."
Symbolism of his personal lifestyle
For Mary Jo Leddy, a social activist, writer and theologian, the choice of a Latin American pope is "incredible." She expects that Latin Americans will be thrilled and see the election as recognition that Latin America is "a hugely significant area where the church is quite alive."
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Bergoglio has been known for his humility and humble way of life, which included riding the bus to work and cooking his own meals, a far cry from Vatican splendor. Bergoglio even turned down the opportunity to move into the ornate church mansion in Buenos Aires. He's also known for speaking out against poverty.
"His personal lifestyle, which seems to be very modest and very connected with people who are poor, just speaks volumes, Leddy told CBC News."Just that symbolism itself is a very powerful message about priorities for the church."
Leddy is the director of Romero House, named for Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980. Romero House, in Toronto, houses and supports refugees.
For Argentina native Diego Creimer, a journalist who now handles media relations for Greenpeace out of their Montreal office, the choice is disappointing. "It's an insult to the human rights movement," he says, recalling Bergoglio's role during Argentina's military dictatorship from 1976-83, known as 'the dirty war.'
"It would have been better to choose someone with a clean slate," Creimer says about the cardinals' conclave.
Bergoglio and 'the dirty war'
Tens of thousands of people were kidnapped or killed by the military during those years, as it carried out its campaign against "subversive elements." Although under Bergoglio the Church apologized — but not until 2012 — for its role during the dirty war, many remain angry with the Church, an important reason it has declined in importance in the lives of Argentines.
Bergoglio's own actions during the dirty war have come under scrutiny. In 1976, two of his Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, were kidnapped and tortured. "Yorio accused Bergoglio of effectively handing them over to the death squads by declining to tell the regime that he endorsed their work," The Associated Press reports.
In an interview with Sergio Rubin for an authorized biography, El jesuita (The Jesuit) that was published in 2010, Bergoglio said that he had taken extraordinary action to free the two priests, according to Rubin. He said mass in dictator Jorge Videla's home and used the occasion to privately appeal for mercy.
Another famous case in which Bergoglio's name comes up is that of the De La Cuadra family, in which four family members, one of them pregnant, were arrested during the early years of the dirty war. All disappeared but not before Elena gave birth in prison. Elena's mother unsuccessfully sought custody of her baby daughter, Ana.
After the family contacted the Jesuits in Rome, Bergoglio, who then headed the order in Argentina, assigned Monsignor Mario Picchi to investigate. Picchi eventually came back with word from a colonel in charge who said that returning Ana to her family was "impossible" because she "has already been given to too important a family.
Nevertheless, in 2010, Bergoglio testified he was unaware of any stolen babies until after the dictatorship ended in 1983.
The baby's aunt, Estela de la Cuadra, told The Associated Press, "Bergoglio has a very cowardly attitude when it comes to something so terrible as the theft of babies. He says he didn't know anything about it until 1985."
The baby's grandmother was Alicia Zubasnabar de De la Cuadra, the first president of the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, which formed in 1977 to search for the estimated 500 babies who were stolen during the dirty war.
Patroni says that the dirty war "is going to be a big issue for the new pope and for the Catholic Church."
Horacio Verbitsky, an award-winning Argentine journalist and human rights activist, wrote about what he called the church's – and Bergoglio's – complicity in the dirty war in his 2005 book El Silencio: de Paulo VI a Bergoglio (The Silence: From Paul VI to Bergoglio).
Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner sent a letter to Pope Francis congratulating him and wishing him "a fruitful task as you take over the immense responsibility of fighting for justice, equality, fraternity and peace for humanity."
Fernandez and Bergoglio had frequently clashed over both her government's lack of effectiveness in addressing poverty and on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.
The relationship was particularly tense in 2010, when Argentina became the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriage, with full adoption rights, which Bergoglio described as "a move by the Father of the Lie." Fernandez responded that his statements "send us back to medieval times and the Inquisition."