NEW YORK – Tourists and office workers enjoying a sunny April afternoon found themselves doubly fortunate to be within sprinting distance of St. Patrick's Cathedral (search) on Tuesday when word broke that a new pope had been elected.
"I will never forget that at that time I was there," beamed Pierre Belzelle, 39, who happened to be sightseeing in the cathedral when its bells rang out to signal the historic occasion.
Images of white smoke billowing from the Sistine Chapel's chimney and tolling bells over St. Peter's Square (search) splashed across huge TV screens all over Rockefeller Center, sending people scurrying toward the hallowed cathedral, considered the center of American Catholicism.
Among those who dropped everything to light a candle and pray for their new spiritual leader was Mercedes Minota, a Spanish teacher who works at New York's media mecca.
"I am very, very happy," she told FOXNews.com.
Minota, a native of Colombia who lives in New Jersey, said that while she had hoped the new pope would be from Latin America, she was certain the cardinals had not erred in their decision.
"The Latin community was expecting changes, but I am very happy anyway because I think it [the election] was so fast because they made the right election," Minota said.
The naming of German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (search), 78, as the next pope was made less than 48 hours after the ultra-secret conclave at the Vatican began. The announcement came a little more than two weeks after Pope John Paul II (search) passed away.
Two young Italian Catholics, who were walking by a TV monitor at the NBC building when the news broke, said they hoped the new pontiff would continue John Paul's work.
"I loved the last pope so much, so now I feel strange because I don't know how another man can do [the work] in the same way," Angela, 30, told FOXNews.com.
Her traveling companion Maria, 27, who also did not give her last name, said Ratzinger's close relationship to John Paul gave her cause for optimism.
"We hope the new pope is the same as the last pope, that he continues his work," she told FOXNews.com.
Even non-Catholics were moved to honor the church's once-in-a-lifetime ritual, in yet another nod to John Paul's gift for embracing people of other faiths.
"I thought [Pope John Paul II] was a wonderful man and I felt for all the Catholic people when he passed away," said Canadian tourist Darlene Hunt, a Baptist. She was walking with her 13-year-old son Cody through Rockefeller Center when they saw the news.
Hunt, 43, told FOXNews.com she hoped Ratzinger would continue John Paul's tradition of working with youths and bringing people from different religions together. Standing on the steps of St. Patrick's, she and her son both seemed overwhelmed by the moment.
"It's just amazing," she said.
The joy millions of Catholics felt on Tuesday was dampened for those hoping for a pope who would narrow the gap between the church's ancient ideology and real-world norms and morality. Ratzinger, who was probably John Paul's most trusted adviser, is seen as a traditionalist who is unlikely to revise the church's position on women clerics, birth control and marriage for priests.
"I would have preferred somebody who was more open-minded," Belzelle, a Belgian Catholic, told FOXNews.com.
Belzelle, who said he thinks women should be allowed to serve as priests, added: "I think the pope [John Paul II] did a good job in the world by opening doors, but in the same way he was too conservative."
Even with reservations about Ratzinger, the Catholics at St. Patrick's on Tuesday said the election was an occasion to hope for the church's future.
A New York Police Department officer standing at his usual post at the cathedral received the news via cell phone from his wife.
"I'm very happy," said Officer Galia, who declined to give his first name.
Galia, a Catholic, said he looked forward to the special masses and other events that will be held at St. Patrick's in the coming days.
"We had our nine days of mourning. Now we have our nine days of celebration."