Pope Francis: representative of God - and Latin America?

Pope Francis is the first Latin American pope, a prospect that fills many in the region with hopes for better representation of their concerns at the Vatican.

In this image made from video provided by CTV, Pope Francis celebrates his inaugural Mass with cardinals inside the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, Thursday. As the 266th pope, Francis inherits a Catholic church in turmoil, beset by the clerical sex abuse scandal, internal divisions and dwindling numbers in parts of the world where Christianity had been strong for centuries.

The first-ever Latin American pope has prompted mixed reactions in the region, from sheer jubilation and tongue-in-cheek comments to serious questions about his relations with a former Argentine dictatorship and his position on same-sex unions that have gained approval in several Latin American nations in recent years. 

All major newspapers across Latin America, which is home to the largest Catholic population in the world, highlighted news of the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who took the name Francisco.

Pablo Hiriart, publisher of Mexico’s La Razón newspaper registered the historic shift for the church, writing: 

There in St. Peter’s a historic moment was being witnessed: Catholicism was shifting its geographic center. The European Catholic church, with retreating vocations, scandals of pillage and pedophilia…gave way to the weight of geography. Asia, America, and Africa are the great reserves of Catholicism and that is where the papacy moved to, while remaining symbolically in Rome. The 21st century began yesterday for the Catholic Church. For the first time the son of an American nation will hold the papacy. A long historic period has ended and the Church has shifted by recognizing the new reality of the century we are living.

Residents across the region expressed a newfound feeling of being represented now that one of their region's own sat on the seat of St. Peter. 

The choice of a cardinal from the region was “phenomenal, because now we [Latin Americans] can really feel that we are represented in the Catholic Church,” says Gustavo Arias, as he loads a sheet of buns into the oven of his neighborhood bakery in the center of Bogotá. Victor Campos, a doorman in Lima, Peru, echoes the thought: “It’s something to be proud of that the pope is from our lands and that our countries are represented in such high positions so that [the church] will remember about us.”

Rosa Maria Vicario, a bank executive in the capital of the Dominican Republic, says she feels “super happy” with the election of a Latin American pope. “America has more Catholics than Europe and we’d had enough of popes worried only about Europe.”  

A humble Argentine?

However, reflecting a generalized notion held by many Latin Americans that Argentines have inflated egos, Ms. Vicario added that she wished he weren’t Argentine because “who’s going to be able to stand their bragging now?”

Some of Latin America’s best-loved jokes involve Argentines who believe they are godlike:

                Two Argentines are sitting at a bar and they start to talk about religion.

                “You know," says one, "I am God’s envoy.”

                The other one says, “What are you talking about? I’m God’s envoy!”

                They continue to argue until they decide to ask a man sitting at the next table.

 “Which one of us do you think is God’s envoy?” they ask.

                And the third man responds “I haven’t sent anyone.”

Some of that holy humor slipped into the regional reactions. 

The cover of Bogota’s El Espectador newspaper showed a full page photo of the new pope with his hand raised in blessing under the headline “The hand of God” – a joking reference to Argentine soccer superstar Diego Maradona’s controversial goal in the 1986 World cup quarter finals which he said was achieved "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God."

In Venezuela, acting president Nicolas Maduro ventured to suggest in a televised event that his recently deceased predecessor, Hugo Chávez, also had a hand in the choice of pope. "We know that our commander rose to those heights and is standing before Christ. He must have had some influence so that a South American pope was chosen.… And Christ said to him ‘South America’s time has come.’ That’s what we believe.”

The view from Argentina

In Argentina, news of the election prompted cheers and applause from hundreds of churchgoers at a mass in the Cathedral of Buenos Aires.  

But Bergoglio is a controversial figure in Argentina, where he is criticized for failing to forcefully challenge the dictatorship that ruled the country from 1976 and 1983, during which more than 30,000 people were forcibly disappeared. Pagina/12 reports:

El Clarin also registered the president's remarks:

"Today is a historic day. For the first time in the 2000-year history of the church there will be a pope who belongs to Latin America,” [Fernandez] said. Some militants [government supporters]  whistled in protest at the mention of Bergoglio at the end of the president’s speech.

Without paying attention to the whistles, Cristina continued her message: "And we hope from our hearts that Francisco I can achieve a higher degree of brotherhood among peoples, and among religions.”

The president also referred to the choice of Francisco as the pope’s name. "We hope that that choice, which I believe is for St. Francis of Assisi, is the choice that … allows human beings to join together with brotherhood, love, justice, and equality.”

Gonzalo Serrano, a philosophy professor at Bogota’s National University, is not convinced that a Latin American pope will change anything for the region. “It’ll be the same, but in Spanish,” he says.

But Natalia Algarin, in the Colombian city of Cartagena, thinks things could change, for the worse. “This is a desperate attempt by the church to recuperate power in the region just when several of our countries finally decide to at least debate the issues of gay marriage, the rights of the LGBTI community, when we are trying to understand what happened during the dictatorship.”

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