Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio made history Wednesday when the Conclave of Cardinals named him the first pope from the Americas after only two days of voting.
But history will forever know the Buenos Aires Jesuit as Pope Francis I—another historic moment that one religious scholar said may signal a new era within the Catholic Church.
“I think the choice of the name Francis is really indicative of trying to set a tone right from the start, of humility, of rebuilding, of somewhat being outside the game of the Vatican to see things afresh, particularly with piety and with holiness,” said Professor Julie Byrne, the department chair of Catholic Studies at Hofstra University. “Those are the kinds of things that Francis is known for.”
Pope Francis I, 76, emerged from the balcony at the Vatican’s St. Peter’s Basilica to cheers from hundreds of thousands gathered outside in St. Peter’s Square, many shedding tears as the newly appointed leader of the Catholic Church waved to the masses. Children perched atop their parents’ shoulders and proud Argentineans waved their country’s flag in celebration.
One local Argentinean was just as ecstatic, saying she was overjoyed upon hearing the news of Pope Francis’ appointment and Latin American roots.
“How great that he comes from Argentina!” rejoiced Sherry Palencia, president of Argentine Tango Lovers of Long Island, a nonprofit that hosts weekly dances at Mirelle’s Restaurant and Catering in Westbury. “I think we need that South American perspective because we’re losing a lot of Catholics around the world.”
The 1.2 billion Catholics across the globe—and the rest of the world for that matter—have been focusing their attention on the Vatican since Pope Benedict XVI’s shocking resignation last month, citing his advancing age and health concerns. He was the first pope to walk away from the papacy in more than 600 years.
Thousands of spectators descended on the holy city in recent days to witness the rituals historically reserved for a pope’s death, yet in Benedict’s case, resignation. The excitement grew with each round of voting—three that featured black smoke—until white smoke finally billowed into the air Wednesday, signaling the new pope’s appointment.
Both politicians and religious leaders alike rejoiced in the special occasion.
“On behalf of the American people, Michelle and I offer our warm wishes to His Holiness Pope Francis as he ascends to the Chair of Saint Peter and begins his papacy,” President Barack Obama said. “As a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us, he carries forth the message of love and compassion that has inspired the world for more than two thousand years—that in each other we see the face of God.
“As the first pope from the Americas, his selection also speaks to the strength and vitality of a region that is increasingly shaping our world, and alongside millions of Hispanic Americans, those of us in the United States share the joy of this historic day,” he continued. “We join with people around the world in offering our prayers for the Holy Father as he begins the sacred work of leading the Catholic Church in our modern world.”
Bishop William Murphy told reporters Wednesday at a hastily assembled news conference that the Roman Catholic Church Diocese of Rockville Centre joins “the universal Church in rejoicing in the selection of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.”
He described Pope Francis as a “very quiet scholarly man” who lives “civilly” and cooks his own meals.
“It’s a good sign, it seems to me, that there wasn’t a lot of division [regarding the expeditious selection process],” said Father Bill Walsh, spiritual director at St. Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House in Manhasset. “And it’s just a very happy occasion in general. One of his first requests will be for our prayers and support and he act according to the mind and heart of Christ.”
Francis’ appointment may be emblematic of the shift in the Catholic population over the years.
More than 40 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Latin America, according to the BBC, citing the World Christian Database. The two countries with the most Catholics by population are Italy and Brazil.
“I do think that is the kind of difference they were able to accommodate giving their diversity,” Byrne, of Hofstra, said of the Cardinals and their appointment of an Argentinean Pope. “There was a certain kind of diversity that they simply can’t display, like doctrinal diversity, but they could display diversity of the global population of Catholics.”
Despite the historical significance surrounding Francis’ selection, his ascension may not resolve some hot-button issues challenging the faith.
“His stated position on liberation theology and on all issues of sexual morality are highly orthodox, so [they're] basically the same as have been the official Vatican [position] to this point,” Byrne said.
Politics aside, Pope Francis’ appointment was simply a momentous occasion worth celebrating for many Catholics around the globe—and here on Long Island.
“We’ll be celebrating!” Palencia said of her group’s March 17 “Green Argentine Singles Dance,” which will feature world-famous champion performers from Argentina. “Oh my goodness, I’m so excited! This Sunday, we’ll be celebrating an Argentinean pope!
“This makes our Sunday even more special,” she added.