BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Tears and cheers erupted across Latin America on Wednesday as an Argentine cardinal became the first pope from the Southern Hemisphere, and many expressed hope that he could help bring the church closer to the poverty-wracked region that is home to more Roman Catholics than any other.
Drivers honked horns on the streets of Argentina’s capital and television announcers screamed with elation at the news that the cardinal they knew as Jorge Mario Bergoglio had become Pope Francis.
People jammed the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires for a Mass for the new pope, and priests said they hadn’t seen such a big crowd in decades.
Bergoglio’s former spokesman, Guillermo Marco, told Argentina’s TN television station that the new 76-year-old pope “has enormous pastoral experience" with a humble bearing.
The new pope was known for taking the subway and mingling with the poor of Buenos Aires while archbishop.
That common touch was evident in the new pope’s first words to the crowd.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, when he started saying, ‘Good afternoon,’ just like someone saying hello to a friend," said Bishop Eugenio Lira, secretary-general of the Mexican Conference of Bishops. “He will certainly be the pope who is closest to the people of Latin America. He knows the problems of Latin America very well."
Soledad Loaeza, a political science professor at the Colegio de Mexico who studies the church, said he was a logical choice. “First, Latin America is the most important region in the world for the church," but one where evangelical churches have been making inroads. “So it may also be an attempt to stop the decline in the number of Catholics."
For church leaders seeking growth, instead of the aging, declining congregations in Europe or the United States, “there are only two regions," Loaeza said: Africa and Latin America.
Nearly half of the world’s Roman Catholics live in the Americas, north and south, or the Caribbean.
In Cuba, parish priest Gregorio Alvarez said he believes Francis’ background could lead the church to focus more on the ills afflicting humanity, and less on internal issues.
“One hopes that the church will be closer to the problems of humankind and not only the problems of the church," Alvarez said at the Jesus of Miramar Church in a leafy western suburb of Havana, where bells pealed following the announcement.
“Being Latin American gives him an advantage. He understands the problems of poverty, of violence, of manipulation of the masses," Alvarez said. “All that gives him experience for the job. ... He’s one of the family."
Even Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, a sometimes antagonist who once compared Bergoglio’s stands on abortion and gay rights to “medieval times and the Inquisition," offered congratulations.
“It’s our desire that you have ... a fruitful pastoral work, developing such great responsibilities in terms of justice, equality, fraternity and peace for humankind," she wrote in an open letter.
Latin America has some of the world’s sharpest divides between rich and poor, and Marvin Cruz, a Catholic at the Parish of the Miraculous in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, said the pope’s “main challenge will be the fight against economic inequality."
“His training as a Jesuit will allow him to take it head on," Cruz said.