A new Pope for a Church in need of a new beginning

Pope Francis speaks from the central balcony of St Peter's Basilica at the VaticanAP

He chose for himself the name Francis, drawing immediate parallels with Francis of Assisi who chose living among the poor over a life of privilege.

Pope Francis, elected to lead the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, is described by those who know him as a humble and spiritual man who cares deeply for the poor.

His humility and unassuming air were evident as he took his first gentle step out onto the balcony of St Peter's Basilica as Pope, asking that the crowd cheering him on would first bless him before receiving his blessing.

As has already been noted by observers, he is a Pope of many firsts – the first from the Americas, the first Jesuit, the first to take the name Francis.

The Latin American world is celebrating the recognition of the region that the new Pope, an Argentinian, brings to it. There is a sense that the region's time has come and that a non-European Pope has been long overdue given its high concentration of Catholics.

Pope Francis is in so many ways a symbol of the new beginning that Catholics have been longing for, a figure who can embody all that is great and worthy about the faith, and finally put to bed the years of scandal and disappointment.

Francis of Assisi heard the calling from God to "build my church" and dedicated his life to this end. Pope Francis must be feeling a similar calling as he takes the reins of the Catholic Church at a time of considerable challenges. In some parts of the world, the Church is losing numbers, and relations with other Churches, most notably the Anglican Communion, have been strained.

The abuse scandals that cast a shadow over Benedict XVI's papacy have not gone away and firm action remains the order of the day to rid the Church of this evil. Whatever challenges there are, restoring the Catholic Church's moral authority is an urgent task and one that is made all the more urgent by the prevailing spiritual confusion and lack of moral clarity around the world today.

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was right in his congratulatory message to point out that the Pope's election is "of great significance to Christians everywhere". A leader of integrity who can reinvigorate the Catholic Church and restore its credibility in the eyes of a sceptical world will be a boon to all parts of the Christian Church and offer it a much needed voice.

Despite the challenges, there is the tantalising prospect of the unexpected, of a clear break with the past and a bold step into a better future. Many a Catholic will be praying that in the coming years their hope does not give way to disappointment.