Latin America sees change under region’s first pope

A vendor sold posters and buttons featuring the image of Pope Francis in Buenos Aires on Thursday.
A vendor sold posters and buttons featuring the image of Pope Francis in Buenos Aires on Thursday.

MEXICO CITY — The famous words uttered to announce that a leader of the Catholic Church has been chosen now have special resonance for Latin America, which had felt neglected by the Vatican and has finally produced the New World’s first pope.

‘‘ ‘Habemus papam.’ ‘WE have a pope,’ ’’ said Tom Quigley, former policy adviser on Latin American and Caribbean affairs at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. ‘‘This will instill a sense of pride and happiness and will have a very positive effect.’’

The selection of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina as pope is already energizing the world’s most Catholic continent, which has been rapidly losing its faithful.


Many hope Pope Francis will bring a familiar cultural warmth, while pushing the church to address a divisive gap between rich and poor in the region. He is also seen as someone who could bridge Latin America’s left-right political split as a conservative devoted to fighting poverty.

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But first, the papacy of Francis is being seen as an overdue acknowledgment of the home of 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

‘‘It’s a recognition of the millions of Spanish-speaking faithful who belong to the church,’’ said President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador said.

Almost everything about Pope Francis suggests a shift from Benedict, who put his focus on saving Europe and was criticized for waiting seven years before visiting Latin America. The new pope picked a name that has never been used, an apparent reference to a humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor. He comes from an order, the Jesuits, that had never produced a pope. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.

‘‘For me it’s a sign from God, who is inviting us to commit ourselves to a continental mission,’’ said Bishop Eugenio Lira, secretary-general of the Mexican Conference of Bishops. ‘‘He will imprint his Latin American personality. . . . He knows the joys, the pains, the problems, and the opportunities of the people of Latin America and the Caribbean, and that will create a very close relationship.’’


Latin America, with roughly 600 million people, is home to some of the world’s poorest and most violent countries, with organized crime and drug trafficking causing a spike in killings in recent years. It is one of the most unequal regions in the world, though the gap has been closing as more people have moved into the middle class.

Francis was unafraid to challenge the Argentine government for being too liberal or to label fellow church members as hypocrites for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

‘‘His discourse is very close to the social doctrine of the church,’’ said Elio Masferrer, a religion expert at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History. ‘‘That includes the criticism that in this time there are sectors of the clergy who behave like aristocrats, like princes of the church.’’