First Latin American pope ‘very exciting,’ faithful say

Story highlights

"Today is a historic day," Argentina's president says

Priest: The pope's past as the son of immigrants could resonate with Latinos

Mexican bishops say his selection is "a sign of love" for Latin American churches

Pope Francis is the first pope from Latin America

CNN  — 

Catholic faithful from Latin America cheered the historic election of the first pope from the region Wednesday.

Crowds swarmed outside the metropolitan cathedral in Buenos Aires, chanting as they waved Argentine flags. Smiling immigrants and tourists praised the news on the steps of New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Pilgrims at Mexico City’s Basilica of Guadalupe said they were thrilled.

Even though about 480 million of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics live in Latin America, for centuries, the church’s top job has gone to Europeans.

That changed with the announcement that Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who served as archbishop of Buenos Aires, would become the new pontiff. Bergoglio, 76, chose the name Pope Francis.

“I felt like crying. I felt great excitement. It is a blessing from God,” said Ines Ambrosi, who spoke to CNN en Español outside New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral shortly after the news was announced. “In Latin America there are millions of Catholics and truly it has been a bit forgotten by the church. Now we feel very represented, and proud.”

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Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner – whose government has sparred with Bergoglio in the past – sent a letter congratulating him as he assumed his new role.

“Today is a historic day. … For the first time in 2,000 years of the church there is going to be a pope that comes from Latin America,” she said later at an event broadcast on public television. “And from our hearts we wish for Francis that he can accomplish a greater degree of fraternity between peoples and religions.”

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Argentine Martin Watson compared the new pope to another kind of celebration that has historically been far more common in his country.

“The news, for us, was almost like winning the World Cup in soccer,” he said.

But he added that the papal pick goes beyond national pride.

“For Latin America, it will be a great change. More eyes will be focused on our region, and maybe we’ll have more support for our region,” he said. “We have a lot of needs. We have more than 50% in each country of the region (that) are very poor. That would be a great help for them.”

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Excitement spreads beyond Argentina

Mexico’s Catholic bishops released a statement praising the news.

“For the churches that are pilgrims in Latin America, it is the cause of great joy,” the statement said. “For the Mexican church, it is a clear sign of love for the churches that are pilgrims in these lands.”

In St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, a woman from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper she was overcome with emotion.

“I feel that Mexico has been a country that has suffered a lot, and so has Latin America, but it is a people that has always put trust in God,” she said, “so it is absolutely wonderful to represent our part of the world this time around.”

Beside her, a woman from Mexico City said her heart jumped when she heard the announcement that a pope had been picked.

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“I’m so excited,” she said. “It’s a reason of being proud tonight, because Latin America is a very important Catholic area and now it’s going to be totally represented here, so I’m so proud and I’m so happy today. … It’s going to help a lot, a Latin American pope, it’s going to help. It’s going to rebuild many things, and it’s a new start.”

In Brazil, the secretary-general of the country’s Council of Bishops said he and many others were surprised, but happy, that Bergoglio was chosen.

“It is a very beautiful sign that the cardinals gave us by electing a Latin American cardinal, now our Pope Francis,” said Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, according to state-run Agencia Brasil. “It shows that the church is truly universal.”

In Venezuela, interim leader Nicolas Maduro suggested the late President Hugo Chavez – who died last week – could have influenced the church’s historic move.

“We know that our commander ascended to those heights,” Maduro said in remarks broadcast on state-run VTV. “He is face to face with Christ. He influenced something. … Some new hand arrived, and Christ said, well, the new hour of South America has arrived.”

Before Wednesday’s announcement, speculation had surged that the church might select its first non-European pope of the modern era.

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“It would be an enormous gesture to name a Latin American pope,” Virginia Garrard-Burnett, a professor of history and religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said earlier this week.

Because Catholicism is losing ground in the region, a pope from there could be a boost for the faith, she said.

Priest: Pope gives hope and pride to U.S. Latinos

The pick is also good news for Catholic Latinos in the United States, said the Rev. Juan J. Molina, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops associate director for the church in Latin America.

“He is also the son of migrants. And for us, Hispanics in the United States, this is very important. … I think that this topic of migration is going to be very important for him,” Molina told CNN en Español. “And we, the Hispanics, the Latinos that now live in the United States … we can also take some hope and pride that this pope intimately knows and has deeply lived the life of a migrant.”

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Bergoglio’s selection also sends a significant message throughout Latin America, Molina said, where the Catholic faith has had a strong presence for centuries.

“The election of a Latin American pope demonstrates that we are now empowered with this faith,” Molina said. “The church in Latin America is a mature church.”

Even the new pope himself alluded to the fact that the church had reached farther than ever for its papal pick.

In his first speech from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, he quipped Wednesday that cardinals had gone to “the end of the world” to find him.

CNN’s Mariano Castillo and Marysabel Huston-Crespo in Atlanta, CNNMexico and Rey Rodriguez in Mexico City, Jose Manuel Rodriguez in Buenos Aires, Juan Carlos Lopez in Washington and Rafael Fuenmayor in New York contributed to this report.