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.