In a country where one in 10 is a former Catholic, the election Wednesday of such an unprecedented pope pumped immediate energy into the American church.
Most Catholics hadn’t heard Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s name on any short-lists and knew little of him, but they got the symbolism right away. And loved it.
First Latin American pope. First Jesuit, an order known for engaging the world, not blockading it. First pope to take the name Francis, Catholic shorthand for simplicity and humility.
Students at Jesuit schools including Georgetown University waved flags and prayed. Spanish-speaking Catholics jammed radio call-in shows. Parishioners in heavily Hispanic neighborhoods such as Columbia Heights crowded into parishes, repeating “El Papa Francis.”
“From North to South America, when something happens to one of us [Latinos], we are touched by it,” said Pedro Biaggi, the Puerto Rican-born host of a popular Spanish radio talk show on El Zol 99.1-FM. “We speak the same language, we feel the same things. And with everything the church has gone through, people think this means things will change. It’s the most Hispanic thing to say, but the last thing you can lose is your faith.”
Even Wednesday morning, he said, callers were joking about the possibility of a pope from Latin America.
“The idea it would be a Hispanic pope was more a dream than anything else,” he said.
Bergoglio and the other 114 cardinals in the conclave were picked by orthodox Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, so it was hardly a surprise as news reports quickly surfaced of his intense rhetoric in 2010 against a bill to legalize same-sex marriage in Argentina, which eventually passed.
The bill, he said, is “a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
But many American Catholics, tired of culture wars, focused Wednesday on what they shared with Bergoglio, and there was a lot.
The son of working-class parents, the new pope has spent much of his life in a country where Catholics — even more so than in the United States — are drifting far from the church. Only 19 percent of Argentine Catholics attend weekly Mass, less than half the percentage in the United States.
When he became archbishop, he told people not to spend money traveling to celebrate him and to instead give it to the poor. He reportedly takes the bus and cooks his own meals. On Wednesday, in his first act as pope, he bowed and asked Catholics to pray for him.
“We certainly see our Jesuit pope from South America as a man with an opportunity to lead the world by example: One that places the needs of the least among us first, rather than first emphasizing sexual politics,” said Chris Pumpelly of the progressive group Catholics United. “By everything I’ve heard about him, he just might be the leader American Catholics have been so desperately needing.”
John Gehring, Catholic program director at the progressive group Faith in Public Life, said he was hopeful the new pope would bring renewed attention to issues of social justice.
“Latin America has some of the most dramatic economic inequality in the world, and Bergoglio has spoken powerfully about this injustice,” Gehring said. “I hope this will be a defining theme of his papacy.
John Garvey, president of Catholic University, said Bergoglio’s humble persona may make him feel more approachable to ordinary Catholics. “The two previous popes were such intellectuals, and, speaking as an academic, sometimes we don’t connect as easily,” Garvey said. “Maybe his pitches will have a different speed and that might be a good thing.”
Kevin Sullivan, 21, was among 50 Georgetown students who gathered at the campus statue of their Jesuit founder, John Carroll, upon hearing the news of the first Jesuit pope and prayed.
“People are hungry for spirituality,” Sullivan said. The church needs to reimagine itself, he said, not by changing its doctrines, but through “social justice, serving the poor, bringing that to the forefront.”
Hugely powerful was Bergoglio’s selection of the name Francis, after the friar St. Francis of Assisi, one of the most venerated figures in all of Catholic history. Francis rejected the wealth of his family, lived in poverty and had a vision telling him to “rebuild the church.” It is a name that evokes wonder to Catholics.
“From what I hear, he has a special place on his heart for the poor,” the Rev. Kevin Thompson said Wednesday in an office crowded with happy parishioners at the domed Shrine of the Sacred Heart Church in Columbia Heights. Nearly 80 percent of the parish is Latino. “He is from our hemisphere, he is a Latino, he speaks Spanish as we do in this parish.”
There is an added layer of symbolism to the name, experts said. For a Jesuit to take a name associated with the Franciscans — two religious orders that have heavily evangelized in Latin America, sometimes historically as bloody competitors, is a powerful emblem of unity.
“It’s like saying: ‘There are two strands of Catholicism in Latin America, I’ll represent both.’ It’s a statement to Latin America: ‘We are on the world stage, this is our history and we’re proud of it,’ ” said Philip Jenkins, an expert on global Christianity at Baylor University.
In the run-up to the conclave, cardinals acknowledged the image problem of endless European popes given the fact that two-thirds of Catholics live in the developing world.
Jenkins said the election of the new pope represented an acknowledgment by the cardinals that change is coming. Argentina is filled with people of Italian heritage, so it’s a blend of Western Europe and South America.
“Catholicism was Europe, but it’s not anymore,” said Rocco Palmo of the popular Vatican-watching blog Whispers in the Loggia. “It’s a different church, and this is at the highest level the fulfillment of that.”
Nick Anderson, Michael Birnbaum, Steve Hendrix, Fredrick Kunkle, Luz Lazo and Elizabeth Tenety contributed to this report.