Jubilant Argentines poured into churches on Wednesday to celebrate the surprise announcement that one of their own – Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio – was the first Latin American pope, and many hoped he’d bring change to a church in crisis.
People throughout the mainly Roman Catholic country rushed to churches, some crying and praying that the 76-year-old Jesuit can bolster faith in the Vatican after a series of scandals.
“I hope he changes all the luxury that exists in the Vatican, that he steers the church in a more humble direction, something closer to the gospel,” said Jorge Andres Lobato, a 73-year-old retired state prosecutor.
“This is a blessing for Argentina,” one woman shouted in the streets of central Buenos Aires.
“There are plans to go down to the obelisk tonight,” said Paula Momm, speaking of the traditional meeting spot in Buenos Aires, where Argentines gather to celebrate events of national importance. “Today the atmosphere will be great.”
“He’s a very popular figure locally, and has a reputation for honesty,” Ms. Momm said. “He’s a low-profile guy, he rides the public transport and is often seen in the slums, getting involved with the poor residents.”
Few Argentines thought Cardinal Bergoglio, who will be known as Pope Francis I, or Francisco I in the Spanish-speaking world, would be chosen.
Within minutes, Twitter feeds went wild with the phrase “The hand of God, again,” in reference to soccer star Diego Maradona, one of Argentina’s best-known sons, who famously used the phrase after being accused of using his hand to score a goal against England in the 1986 World Cup. The new Pope – who has spoken in favour of dialogue rather than dogma as the remedy to the problems faced by the Church – joked about Argentina’s far-flung position in South America in his first public comments from the Vatican after being elected.
His brother cardinals “went to the end of the world” to find a new pope, he said.
The continent had put forward many strong candidates for the papacy, most prominently Odilo Scherer of Brazil, who was a front-runner in the 2005 conclave deliberations when Pope Benedict XVI was elected.
“The church and the national media here had us all praying overtime for [Scherer],” said Flavia Brunetti, a Brazilian resident of Sao Paulo immediately after the Vatican’s decision was announced.
“For us it’s like football,” she said. “We always want to beat the Argentines when we play them, there’s always been a huge rivalry, so of course there was a lot of the same feeling this time around.
“But what’s most important is that the new Pope is from Latin America,” she added. “The Catholic Church has a very pious following here, so this is a sign of recognition. We were seen as just a colony of Catholicism for such a long time, now is the time we can progress.”
Argentina was the first country in Latin America to legalize gay marriage, an issue over which the Catholic Church has refused to budge as other countries and governments in the region have followed the progressive South American nation.
“I have gay friends who go to Argentina to get married,” said Ms. Brunetti, speaking from Brazil’s largest city. “Can you imagine an Argentine Pope having to deal with that? But this is what the Church needs, to show at least that they are thinking about progress.”
Latin America has one of the world’s highest densities of Catholics, with a faith base more than 370 million-strong, over 80 per cent of the continent’s total population. The election of Pope Francis provides resolution to the long-standing question of when a Latino would be chosen to lead the church.
“It’s not like electing a black president,” said Barbara Alvarez, a native of Mendoza, an Argentine town on the Chilean border, “but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Reuters with a report from Alasdair Baverstock in Caracas