BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Argentines reacted with joyous surprise to the news that former Jesuit priest, local archbishop and, most recently, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
In sharp contrast, President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s response was notably restrained, owing to past differences with the new Pope Francis.
In the minutes after the announcement, hundreds of Buenos Aires faithful assembled outside the cathedral in the capital’s central Plaza de Mayo, where the new pope once held Masses and gave homilies. Some knelt in prayer on the steps, others hugged, and a rising chorus of “Francisco, Francisco” and “Argentina, Argentina” echoed throughout the plaza.
Computer technician Gustavo Mollar, 43, who rushed to the cathedral after getting the news over the Internet, said after emerging from praying in the cathedral that the 76-year-old Bergoglio’s election was a shock.
“For his age, and because the last time he was passed over in favor of Benedict XVI, I didn’t even see him named among the favorites,” Mollar said. “But for those reasons, my surprise and my joy are even greater, which is what all Argentines feel right now.”
A din of car horns began spreading through the city as the news took hold. “To have an Argentine as the first Latin American pope is exciting,” Mollar said as a passerby approached and asked, “Bergoglio? Are you serious?”
In an open letter, Fernandez sent restrained congratulations to the new pope in the name of the government and the Argentine people. Bergoglio was at odds with Fernandez’s positions favoring same-sex marriage, free contraception and artificial insemination.
Kirchner once reacted angrily to Bergoglio’s comment that adoption by gay partners amounted to discrimination, saying his attitude was medieval.
Argentina’s Congress also failed to share in the enthusiasm expressed by many on the street. An attempt to recognize the new pope in the Chamber of Deputies was brushed aside by the majority Victory Front bloc, which supports Kirchner and was engaged in a tribute to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
“Resentful and uncouth!” shouted one of the opposition deputies, Omar de Marchi of Mendoza province.
Buenos Aires residents interviewed downtown, however, were ecstatic. Legal secretary Silvana Schmale, 56, who had attended Mass celebrated by the new pope several times, said she shouted and hugged her colleagues at work when she heard the news. Like others, she mentioned his humility and his denial of the trappings of the church.
“He practices what he preaches. He’s the most humble, low-profile person you could meet. He never traveled in a car, but on buses and on the subway,” Schmale said. “This is why he was chosen, because this is how the church should be in all the world: humble and plain.”
Some have criticized Bergoglio for being too quiet during the so-called dirty war from 1976 to 1983, when an estimated 30,000 dissidents were killed by the military junta or disappeared.
Others have blunted those accusations by pointing to his sponsorship for canonization of three priests and two seminarians who were killed in Buenos Aires’ San Patricio Church in July 1976, apparently on orders of the junta.
Marcelo Figueroa, 55, a media relations manager at a Roman Catholic television station, said he has known Bergoglio for 10 years, working together to produce programs promoting ecumenism.
It’s an important message in a region where Roman Catholicism has lost ground to evangelistic Christian sects in recent decades, he said. “His being named pope is a clear message in favor of interreligious unity,” Figueroa said, adding that his “friend the pope” also will emphasize close contact with the faithful.
“Bergoglio is a pastor who will take care of his flock like no one else,” Figueroa said. “That’s his vision, to take care of people, of humanity. I am very happy. God is great!”