Hispanic Catholics in the United States reacted with jubilant optimism Wednesday to news of the world’s first Latin American pope, saying they hoped he might use his background to help mend rifts and surmount challenges that hamper their communities, the church, and the world.
On a basic level, they celebrated the fact that Pope Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, shares aspects of their backgrounds and could, it seems, be their father or grandfather.
“He’s one of our own,” says Rosendo Urrabazo, the Chicago-based provincial superior for the Claretian Missionaries, a Catholic order of priests and brothers. “Somebody with a Hispanic last name and whose mother tongue is Spanish – that touches people’s hearts.”
Francis I will be endearing, too, Rev. Urrabazo says. He met the man in Buenos Aires, where then-Archbishop Bergoglio rode the bus to work every day and answered the door to the chancery himself.
Others say they hope to see such unpretentiousness in the new pope because today’s challenges require a leader who relates to ordinary people. That includes Hispanic Catholics, who comprise nearly half the church’s global membership of 1.2 billion.
Consider young adults. A Gallup survey released in February found that Hispanics in America, especially those under age 30, are increasingly unlikely to identify as Catholic. But having a Latin American atop the church hierarchy could help young Hispanics feel that they belong, according to Lily Morales, who coordinates events for young adult Hispanics in the Diocese of Austin.
“We really wanted someone [in the papacy] who could represent the American continents,” Ms. Morales says. “I think Hispanic young adults will feel stronger connections to the church because [Pope Francis I] is Latino.”
Similar dynamics might help more young men consider the priesthood, says Urrabazo, whose work involves finding men to join his religious order as priests and brothers. They might be more curious to investigate the option, he notes, if they see a man of integrity at the helm who looks and sounds a bit like they do.
On a broader scale, Hispanic Catholics said they hope the new pope’s identity as a Latin American can help him make inroads on thorny social issues. Morales talks of a need to mend a church strained by tensions around homosexuality, abortion, and the handling of clergy sexual abuse cases.
As a Latino, “he represents a huge chunk of the Catholic community,” Morales says. “I hope that having that in mind, and having that background, will help to repair the church.”
What’s more, many Hispanic Americans struggle with problems, such as poverty and families separated by immigration policies, that need moral leadership to resolve, says Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, a Latino theology expert at Loyola Marymount University. Pope Francis I can’t remedy these alone, she admits. But he can, in her view, point the way to compassionate solutions, especially if he exudes “cariño” – a special kind of warmth that engenders love and trust.
“I want to see if he has cariño,” she says. “It’s a concept for a way of life.… I’m waiting to see if I see that in him.”