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Pope Francis' South American roots may help energize church: Experts

Residents in the Hudson Valley share their thoughts

Residents in the Hudson Valley share their thoughts on Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, who became the first non-European pope in modern history as well as the first native Spanish speaker to hold the office. Credit: Getty Images

Hailed by New York Catholics, Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio yesterday became the first non-European pope in more than 1,000 years, ascending to the papacy less than two weeks after his predecessor Benedict XVI retired.

Speaking to tens of thousands at St. Peter's Square, Bergoglio, 76, who will be known as Pope Francis, said the church had to go to "the end of the earth" to find a new bishop of Rome.

"Pray for me," Francis, wearing the pope'swhite robes for the first time, told those gathered in the square.

For some New Yorkers, Francis' ascension was an enormous blessing.

"I just believe this is bringing so many people to God, especially the youth," said Sonia LaFont, 48, who lives in midtown and took to St. Patrick's Cathedral yesterday to celebrate.

"I have a lot of respect for the Catholic church. I was born and raised a Catholic, but I'm going to start coming back more often. I'm going to come here, God put me in a good place today."

Francis, the first Jesuit to lead the church, was a surprise choice, as there was much speculation that the church would choose a younger, more charismatic pope to reinvigorate its image and connect with younger Catholics, experts said.

"It's very surprising," said Robert Somerville, professor of religion and history and Columbia University.

"A lot of people were saying they needed candidates who were younger and more vigorous," Somerville said, "and the degree to which he can cooperate with the curialists to clean up some of the things in the church that need to be cleaned up is an important question."

Somerville added: "But come on, he's almost 80 years old. ... If Benedict lives a long time, is it inconceivable that we could have two retired popes? It's not inconceivable at all."

The selection of a South American cardinal as pope is a major shift in Roman Catholic tradition, and his decision to take the first-time name Francis also indicates a change in papal thinking, experts said.

"It shows that he wants to bring the world together. St. Francis was pastoral and peaceful," said Julie Byrne, chairwoman of the department of religion at Hofstra University.

"On the other hand, Cardinal Bergoglio is certainly on the right side, the conservative side of the political spectrum of Catholicism," she added.

Chris Vogt, chair of the theology department at St. John's University, agreed, adding that the selection may show shifts in the makeup of the church.

"I think it's a sign of the shifting demographics of the Catholic Church worldwide," he said. "He wants to reach out to people, so certainly it could be something that is a new connection."

Indeed, those shifting demographics are especially significant in New York City, where ethnicities of the Catholic Church have dramatically changed over the years, experts said.

Whereas in previous generation the church was dominated by Irish and Italians, the rise of an immigrant population in the five boroughs has changed the structure of the church here, said Charles Camosy, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University.

"The Catholic population in New York is no longer dominated by the Irish and the Italians," Camosy said. "It's just not the way it is anymore."

"The immigrant population who have been here for several generations now - especially with white Catholics falling away from the church or becoming secular - the real energy behind the church in New York and the world more broadly has moved to people who are now connected to the global south."

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, who is also president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the selection was a major landmark.

"The election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who has taken the name Francis I, marks a great milestone in our church," Dolan said. "As successor to Peter, our first pope, Pope Francis I stands as the figure of unity for all Catholics wherever they reside."

Remmy Lara, 59, who lives in Jamaica but was born just north of Argentina in Bolivia, also celebrated Francis at St. Patrick's.

"This is a good message. He understands," Lara said. "Family is brought together by the church. This pope, he has a family mission."

Reverend Monsignor Robert Ritchie, rector of St. Patrick's, gave a speech and blessing after Francis was announced, saying that his South American origins will help him lead.

"I know that God has chosen a holy father," he said. "He comes from one of the furthest corners of the world ... He is aware of the world's problems."

Ritchi added: "God has given us this very holy man. God chose him for us."

(Dan Rivoli and Anna Sanders)


Pope Francis' Speech

"Brothers and sisters, good evening."

"You know that the duty of the conclave was to give a bishop to Rome. It seems that my brother cardinals went almost to the end of the world to get him. But here we are."

"I thank you for this welcome by the diocesan community of Rome to its bishop. Thank you."

"First of all, I would like to say a prayer for our bishop emeritus, Benedict XVI. Let us all pray together for him, let us all pray together for him so that the Lord may bless him and that the Madonna may protect him."


Papal Viewpoints

Pope Francis has remained private with most of his opinions but very open on three topics.

-- GAY MARRIAGE: He issued this statement after gay marriage was legalized in Argentina in 2010 and was active in the campaigns to strike it down:
"Let us not be naive: This is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God's plan," he wrote in a statement, according to Reuters.

-- ABORTION: In 2006, he criticized an Argentine proposal that would legalize abortion, according to the Catholic News Service. Francis urged parishioners to oppose abortion in a homily in 2009 and reiterated the Vatican's stance that life begins at conception.

-- POVERTY: Francis has spoken out against the growing economic inequality throughout Latin America, telling bishops there in 2007 that "the unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries out to Heaven," according to National Catholic Reporter

(Ivan Pereira)


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