Published March 14, 2013
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 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "This will instill a sense of pride and happiness and will have a very positive effect."
The selection of former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio 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 and not afraid to speak out against the hierarchy.
But first, the papacy of Francis is being seen as an overdue acknowledgement of the home of 40 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics that felt distant from former Pope Benedict XVI.
"It's a recognition of the millions of Spanish-speaking faithful who belong to the church," said Salvadoran President Mario Funes.
Almost everything about Pope Francis suggests a shift from Benedict, his reserved academic predecessor, who put his focus on saving Europe and was criticized for waiting seven years before visiting Spanish-speaking Latin America on a trip last year to Mexico and Cuba.
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 through the region in recent years. It remains one of the most unequal regions in the world, according to the World Bank, though the gap has been closing in recent years and more people have move 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."
But one of his main challenges will be to woo back the followers the church has lost to Protestant evangelicals or just to secularism, with some of the biggest drain occurring in the poorest communities.
Perhaps nowhere in Latin America has the church been losing ground faster than in Brazil.
The nation still has more Catholics than any other — 124 million people self-identified as following the faith in the 2010 Census, 65 percent of the population. However, just a decade earlier 74 percent of Brazilians were Catholic, and in 1970 that figure was 92 percent.
The Pentecostal churches expanded rapidly in poor areas in Brazil, offering the downtrodden real-life guidance on employment and education, while the Catholic church was perceived to have largely abandoned poor urban areas in cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.
In the slums of those two cities, one would be hard pressed to locate a Catholic house of worship, whereas raucous Pentecostal churches holding daily services are numerous.
Yet in recent years, even the Pentecostals are losing steam in Brazil.
"The biggest challenge facing the church in Latin America isn't the growth of the Pentecostals, but the abandonment of a considerable amount of Catholics and others to agnosticism," said Fernando Altemeyer, a theologian at the Catholic University of Sao Paulo.
The church under Francis also must recover from the financial and sexual abuse scandals that marked Benedict's eight-year papacy before he resigned last month.
"The question is whether the new Pope will achieve transparency when managing the church, whether he manages to re-legitimize the moral and financial questions, I think this is key, not only for Latin America but more generally," said Franklin Ramirez of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in Ecuador.
As a cardinal, Pope Francis never held a top post inside the Vatican administration, or curia. This outsider status could pose obstacles in attempts to reform the Vatican, which has been hit with embarrassing disclosures from leaked documents alleging financial cover-ups and internal feuds.
His biographer, Sergio Rubin, told the AP that the new pope reacted strongly to the pedophilia scandal, which hit Argentina among other Latin American countries, saying the church has to make sure that its next priests aren't so susceptible. Only 40 percent of those who enter seminary make it as priests.
"He imposed a system of very strict controls," Rubin said.
The region that celebrated its native son on Wednesday believes he is up to the task.
Jesuits have the gift of spreading the word of God in the most inhospitable of places, said Maurizzio Pavia, an Argentine tourism official who promotes religious and cultural events in Puerto Rico.
"I think his emphasis will be on helping people recover the confidence they had in the church as an institution and as the evangelical messenger," Pavia said.
Associated Press writers Michael Warren in Argentina, Gonzalo Solano in Ecuador, Bradley Brooks and Marco Sibaja in Brazil, Marcos Aleman in El Salvador, Danica Coto in Puerto Rico, and Olga R. Rodriguez and Adriana Gomez Licon in Mexico contributed to this report.