La Prensa América presents:

The First Latin American Pope!


Katia López-Hodoyán
Reporting From Rome

Pope Francis I
Pope Francis I

It was unexpected. More than 200,000 people fixed their eyes on St. Peter’s Balcony. They forgot Rome’s cold and rainy weather and instead cheered, waved their flags and yelled out “Viva il Papa.” It was official. White smoke had emerged from the Sistine Chapel, but one thing was still missing: The identity of the new Pope had not yet been revealed. The anticipation and anxiety was obvious. When Cardinal Jean Louis Tauran came out, people held their breath…it was time.

He uttered the famous Latin phrase ‘Habemus Papam,’ meaning ‘We have a Pope.’ The excitement was real. It was alive. A few seconds later, as the world looked on, the cardinal announced the name of the 266th Pope in Latin: Georgium Marium Bergoglio. There were two seconds of confused silence, followed by a murmured ‘No…’ Who was this cardinal?

He was certainly not among the ‘papabili’ or favorites. He was not on the media’s ‘Top 10 List’ or even on Catholics own playful list of plausible candidates. At 76, he isn’t young. There was shock, surprise, but then, literally within minutes there was a noticeable shift in attitude. The first Latin American Pope, Jose Mario Bergoglio, came out and showed his humility. Wearing the same silver crucifix he’s worn since being named Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he asked for a few moments of silence, so people could to pray for him as he begins his Papacy. He too bowed his head, and joined in prayer. The silence was intense, the simple gesture spoke volumes.

“My first thought was, ‘what? I didn’t even think he was an option,’ said Oscar de la Fuente, a 24 year old Spaniard who lives in Rome. “But then he we won me over when he asked us to pray for him, in silence, right then and there. That says a lot. It was him inviting us, the Church, to be part of his Papacy.”

Even the Vatican’s spokesperson, Federico Lombardi, told a room full of journalists “I was shocked. But it was a nice surprise.”

In Argentina, Bergoglio is known for working closely with the poor and underprivileged. As the archbishop of Buenos Aires, it wasn’t uncommon for him to visit local slums. In Rome, he’s known as the cardinal who takes the city’s public transportation to get to the Vatican. His first day as Pope he continued this streak by picking up his luggage at a local Vatican owned residence, and paying for the tab. Pope Francis then took a shuttle, with other cardinals back to the ‘Casa Santa Marta,’ foregoing the usual Papal transportation of a black four door Mercedes Benz.

While humility and ingenuity are positive attributes, his papacy is marked by the word ‘first.’ The first Latin American Pope, the first Jesuit, the first in modern history to be elected after a Papal resignation. Yet, even though his election is a surprise for the world, it’s not that big of a surprise for cardinal electors. Back in 2005, when Benedict XVI was elected, Bergoglio actually came in second. The information was leaked, despite the Conclave’s strict vow of secrecy.

“The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio marks a great milestone in our Church,” said American Cardinal, Tim Dolan. “Pope Francis I stands as the figure of unity for all Catholics wherever they reside.”

When it comes to numbers, a Latin American Pope is well overdue. Almost half of the world’s Catholics live in that part of the world. A fact that does not reflect the distribution of cardinal electors. Sixty are from Europe, 14 from the U.S and Canada and 19 from Latin America. It’s precisely because of these numbers that math-wise, the election of a Latin American Pope had not been given much weight…up until now that is. While European countries are traditionally Christian, the continent is quite secular. In the last decades, there’s been a sharp drop in numbers. Out of 100 baptized Catholics in Europe, roughly 3 go to Sunday Mass regularly. In the U.S it’s about 30 out of 100. Moreover, many practicing Catholics in the U.S are actually Latin American immigrants, giving their role even more importance for the Universal Church.

“More than 47% of Catholics live in Latin America, said Guzman Carriquiry, Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, a Vatican department that focuses on the works of the Church in the Americas. “This is something the Pope simply can’t ignore. I hope he visits Mexico in the first year of his Papacy so he can visit Our Lady of Guadalupe. She’s important not only in Latin America, but also in North America,” added Carriquiry.

Pope Francis does have a trip scheduled to Latin America. Before resigning, Benedict XVI had planned on going to Brazil, to lead World Youth Day in Rio, at the end of July. The massive gathering brings young Catholics from all over the world. It’s a type of Congress where young adults can strengthen their faith and meet other like minded people. The last one was held in Madrid where close to 2 million youths attended.

Yet regular, every day Catholics don’t seem to be that concerned with numbers, percentages or distribution of cardinals. They are more interested in matters they can directly relate to. “It’s great that the new Pope speaks Spanish,” said Carolina Rodriguez, from Venezuela. “It will be nice to have someone who directly understands our culture, our values and our way of life. Obviously it will be a lot easier to understand him when he speaks.”

Only days have passed since his election, but the expectations are high. Pope Francis will have to lead the Church, in a time when scandals have often overshadowed its good works.

“The fact that he was elected Pope is in a way revolutionary for the Church,” said Italian Marco Rocco. “It’s definitely a change to have a Latin American Pope…I think it will be good all around.”

Only time will tell, but his election alone is historic.

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