Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected the first German pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church in almost five centuries on Tuesday. Describing himself as "a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord," he chose to be called Benedict XVI.

Ratzinger, who turned 78 on Saturday, was one of Pope John Paul II's closest aides. A conservative who served as head of the Vatican office that enforces church doctrine, he was dubbed "the great inquisitor" by his critics.

The German prelate had been considered the front-runner to succeed the Polish-born John Paul, who died on April 2. Ratzinger's 114 fellow cardinal-electors chose him on their fourth ballot, less than 24 hours after they opened their conclave. At least 77 votes, a two-thirds majority, were required for election.

A slight, white-haired figure wearing a short red cape and wine and gold stole over his white soutane, the new pope stepped smiling through red velvet curtains onto the main balcony of St. Peter's Basilica shortly before 7 p.m.

He threw his arms wide and clasped his hands above his head. "Dear brothers and sisters," Ratzinger said, "after the great Pope John Paul II, the signor cardinals have elected me, a simple and humble worker in the vineyard of the Lord."

Tens of thousands of Romans and pilgrims had gathered in St. Peter's Square despite a light rain. The crowd warmly applauded the new pope's greeting, but clapped and cheered longer and louder when he evoked John Paul.

"The fact that the Lord works and acts even with insufficient instruments consoles me and above all I trust in your prayers," Ratzinger said. "We go forward in the joy of the risen Lord, trusting in his permanent aid. The Lord will help us and Mary, his most holy mother, will be at our side."

The new leader of the world's more than 1 billion Catholics then gave his first "urbi et orbi" blessing to the people of Rome and the world. Popes traditionally deliver the blessing at Christmas and Easter.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said that Benedict returned to the Domus Santa Marta, where he and the other 114 cardinals attending the conclave had been sequestered since Sunday night. He dined with them and spent the night there instead of moving immediately into the papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.

On Wednesday morning, he celebrated Mass in Latin with the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel where they voted to elect him pontiff. The altar in the chapel stands in front of Michelangelo's painting of "The Last Judgment." Navarro-Valls said Benedict's "solemn inauguration as pontiff" will be celebrated at St. Peter's on Sunday, April 24.

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Ratzinger, a native of Bavaria, is the 265th pope in the history of the Roman Catholic Church and the eighth German. The last German pope was Adrian VI, who reigned from 1522 to 1523 and was also the last non-Italian pontiff until John Paul II was elected in 1978.

The last pope to hold the name of Benedict was an Italian whose reign from 1914 to 1922 encompassed World War I. Church historians have called him one of the finest and least appreciated pontiffs.

The new pope is known for his firm stand on doctrinal orthodoxy. Celebrating a pre-conclave Mass on Monday in his capacity as dean of the College of Cardinals, he denounced "a dictatorship of relativism" and praised Catholics who are labeled fundamentalists for "having a clear faith based on the creed of the Church."

In the controversial 2000 "Declaration Dominus Iesus," which he issued in September 2000 as prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger expressed "sincere respect" for other religions. But he attacked "religious relativism which leads to the belief that one religion is as good as another."

"If it is true that the followers of other religions can receive divine grace, it is also certain that objectively speaking they are in a gravely deficient situation in comparison with those who, in the church, have the fullness of the means of salvation," the document said. It called non-Catholic Christian bodies "defective."

The cardinal-electors intended the traditional white smoke from burning ballots to signal Ratzinger's election. But when the first of three puffs of smoke issued from a copper chimney atop the Sistine Chapel at 5:50 p.m. it appeared to be light gray, and the crowd in St. Peter's Square was uncertain what it meant.

Fifteen minutes later the great bell of St. Peter's Basilica began tolling and all the church bells in Rome chimed in, leaving no doubt that a pope had been elected.

Under Vatican procedure, there was a pause of about 50 minutes before the name of the new cardinal was announced. This was to allow time for him to formally accept his election and have it certified, choose his papal name, change into one of the three sets of vestments prepared in advance to fit a small, medium or large pope, and receive "an act of homage and obedience" from the cardinals.

Cardinal Jorge Medina Estevez of Chile, who holds the title of senior cardinal-deacon in the College of Cardinals, then appeared on the main balcony of St. Peter's Square to declare in Latin, "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnun: habemus papam!"

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In translation, his words were, "I announce to you with great joy: We have a pope, the most eminent and most reverend lord, Lord Joseph Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church Ratzinger." Continuing in Latin, the cardinal said the new pope had taken the name Benedict XVI.

Scores of cardinals stood crowded together at windows and balconies of the Hall of Benedictions to watch the proceedings. The cardinals opened their conclave late Monday in the Sistine Chapel with Swiss Guards stationed outside the doors. They took an oath to preserve the secrecy of everything to do with the election.

The ballots were burned in a cast iron stove that has served that purpose since the election of Pope Pius XII in 1939. Chemicals were added to the paper to color the smoke black after inconclusive rounds and wet straw to make it white.

Because of past confusion over smoke that looked more gray than black or white, the Vatican installed an electronic device intended to intensify the color and decided to ring the basilica bell as well on the election.

Desser Allen, a sixth-grade teacher from Boston, was in the crowd waiting for the smoke. "I came to see a lot of history that I've been teaching about. When I get home I can tell my students that I saw it live," she said.

Allen said that she is not Catholic but admired John Paul "because he went beyond the Catholic Church. The next pope shouldn't try to be John Paul again, but he should have moral values and be there for everyone, not just Catholics," she said.

A group of students from Christendom College in Fort Royal, Va., who are spending three months studying in Rome, stood behind a banner announcing the name of the small Catholic school and an American flag.

Joan Watson, a junior, said they camped in a street near the Vatican the night before John Paul's funeral to be sure of getting into St. Peter's Square. "I have faith that the next pope will continue the work of John Paul II and continue the teaching of the church as it has been for 2,000 years," she said.

Related Elsewhere:

Conservative Evangelicals Say New Pope Speaks Their Moral Language | "He's going to hold the line," says Norm Geisler.
Speaking Out
Upright But No Panzer Pope | Why he was chosen—and why he's no narrow-minded blockhead. By Uwe Siemon-Netto
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From 'Erstwhile Liberal' to 'Vatican Enforcer | A review of John Allen's Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican's Enforcer of the Faith.

Earlier articles on Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II include:

The New Pope's Relationship with Protestants | In this 1998 Christianity Today article, Richard John Neuhaus examined Joseph Ratzinger's dialogue with the Reformation traditions and his vision for Christianity in the new millennium. (May 18, 1998)
The Pope We Never Knew | The unknown story of how John Paul II ushered Campus Crusade into Catholic Poland. (April 19,2005)
Pope's Funeral Spotlights Kinship Between Catholics and Evangelicals | Once antagonistic communities are now on the same side of several cultural issues. (March 08, 2005)
Christian History Corner: Signs of the Reformation's Success? | Reformation scholar Timothy George discusses Pope John Paul II's historical significance and this 'momentous' era of Catholic-evangelical dialogue. (March 08, 2005)
Pope Gave Evangelicals the Moral Impetus We Didn't Have | Timothy George discusses how "the greatest pope since the Reformation" changed evangelicalism without us knowing. (April 06, 2005)
Pope 'Broadened the Way' for Evangelicals and Catholics | Theologian Tom Oden sees continued cooperation ahead. (April 05, 2005)
How the Pope Turned Me Into An Evangelical | A Christianity Today associate editor recalls growing up Catholic in John Paul II's Poland. (April 04, 2005)
Pope John Paul II and Evangelicals | Protestants admired his lifelong admonition to "Be not afraid! Open the doors to Christ!" An interview with George Weigel. (April 04, 2005)

A collection of earlier coverage of Pope John Paul II is available online.