Faith leaders trumpeted the selection of the first pope from Latin America, saying the historic move was an important recognition of the region’s increasingly powerful role in Catholicism.
Pope Francis, former Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, is from Argentina.
“This is refreshing, it’s a choice for new leadership,” said Father Francisco Quezada, the president of the National Association of Hispanic Priests, and vicar for the Diocese of Colorado Springs. “It was time to look away from the European circle, the same group of people.”
He said the choice reflects the prominent role Hispanics have in the Catholic Church.
“But first, he is a pope for all the world’s people. He happens to be representing culturally a growing Latino aspect of the Catholic Church in the America’s, in the world,” he said.
Some religious leaders believe that Pope Francis will energize Catholicism among Latinos all over the world.
“It will help the Catholic Church on Latin America, which is one of the most important churches in the world,” said Rev. Robert Pelton, the director of Latin American/North American Church Concerns at the University of Notre Dame.
“A large part of the reason the evangelical movement in Latin America has been so successful is because we’re not carrying out our responsibilities as we should have been,” Pelton said. “The new pope will help take that role back. He’s not afraid to take the bus to work.”
Latin America is home to 425 million Catholics, the largest share of any region. Nearly 40 percent of Catholics worldwide live in the region. In Argentina, 92 percent – or 38 million – of the population is nominally Roman Catholic.
Many Latin America's observe Catholicism in the most somber traditional ways, making pilgrimages – for miles, even on their knees in some regions – on holy days in observance of their patron saints, walking long distances in processions, and holding "posadas," a ritual during Christmas where the faithful go from door to door before ending at their destination.
Such rituals continue to take place in many Latino communities in the United States.
President Barack Obama offered warm wishes to newly elected pope, and observed its important milestones for Latinos.
Obama says the selection of the first pope from the Americas speaks to the strength and vitality of Latin America. He says millions of Hispanic Americans join him in praying for the new pope.
Latino leaders of other faiths also expressed pride in the selection of Pope Francis.
"The selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the leader of the Catholic Church represents a courageous, bold and catalytic determination,” said Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the nation's largest Christian Hispanic organization.
“The message conveyed to the global audience solidifies the fact that the center of Christianity no longer rests in the corridors of Europe or America but rather, south of the border,” Rivera said. “I commend the cardinals for making such a historic decision. Moreover, this decision confirms the notion that Latinos stand poised, both in America and abroad, to contextualize the narrative of the Christian faith in the 21st century.”