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Obama sends prayers, warm wishes to new pope

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WASHINGTON » President Barack Obama offered prayers and warm wishes today to the newly elected pope, applauding the selection of the first pope from the Americas as a sign of the region’s strength and vitality.

He said his joy on the historic election of former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, who chose the papal name Francis, was shared by millions of Hispanic Americans, the majority of whom are Roman Catholics.

“As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than 2,000 years — that in each other, we see the face of God,” Obama said in a statement.

Calling the task of leading the modern Catholic Church “sacred work,” Obama said he looked forward to working with the new pope to promote peace, security and dignity for people of all faiths.

Vice President Joe Biden, the first Catholic to be elected vice president, will lead the U.S. delegation to Francis’ installation in Rome. In a statement, Biden said he was happy to be able to personally convey the American people’s well wishes to the new pope.

“The Catholic Church plays an essential role in my life and the lives of more than a billion people in America and around the world, not just in matters of our faith, but in pursuit of peace and human dignity for all faiths,” Biden said.

Although an official date for the installation hasn’t been released, the Vatican hinted that it would likely take place on Tuesday.

Cardinals in Rome elected the 76-year-old Bergoglio today after a remarkably fast, five-ballot conclave. The son of an Italian immigrant, Bergoglio replaces retired Pope Benedict XVI, who last month became the first pope to resign in 600 years.

Leaders on Capitol Hill echoed Obama’s warm words and said they celebrated the historic nature of Bergoglio’s selection.

“I think that reaching out beyond the traditional continent of our church is another big step in the right direction for the church,” said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., offered wishes of “health, happiness and strength” as Bergoglio becomes the spiritual leader for the world’s Catholics.

Associated Press writer Alan Fram contributed to this report.

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