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Ortiz: What will Pope Francis mean for Latinos?

A women poses with an Argentinian flag on

A women poses with an Argentinian flag on St Peter's square at the Vatican, a day after the election of the new pope. (Mar. 14, 2013) Photo Credit: Getty Images

Immediately after Cardinal Tauran made the traditional Habemus Papam announcement, the media outlets from around the world I was following became totally silent for several seconds.

"God works in mysterious ways," was the first reaction from a Latin American TV station, using a commonly used expression in that continent.

"Who?" asked one reporter from a major American station.

The announcement of 76-year-old Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as Pope Francis indeed came as a surprise to many. A first in many regards, as has been widely reported by now -- the first pope to take the name the Francis; the first pope of the Americas and the first from Latin America specifically; and first Jesuit.

Regardless of our religious affiliation -- or non-affiliation for that matter -- we cannot ignore the importance that the election of a pope has, not only for the 1.2 billion Catholics but also for the entire world. What kind of pope will Francis be, and what impact will this election have among Hispanics around the world?

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires since 1998 and as Cardinal Bergoglio since 2001, his views have been held both as socially progressive and doctrinally conservative. He is known as a major proponent of social justice, which has become a central item in the agenda of Latin American Catholicism. Commentators from around the world have by now stressed that his personal choice for an austere life style and his choice of the name Francis are symbolic of his humility and spiritual poverty.

At the same time, he has also been sharply criticized for having distanced himself as a theologian from the controversial Theology of Liberation, which flourished in Latin America particularly in the 1970s and '80s. In this regard, he was not very far from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was entrusted by Pope John Paul II to formulate an official church response to this theological movement. Also, Cardinal Bergoglio's relationship with the Argentinian government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner has been fairly strained on social issues -- particularly in recent years, when he became a major opponent of the South American country's legalization of same-sex marriage.

But we must remember that no pope will ever be "modern," "radical," or "reformer" enough for those expecting major changes in the Catholic Church, nor "traditional" or "conservative" enough for those defending traditional church teachings. No pope will ever satisfy the entire gamut of expectations we place on his office.

As the first Latin American pope, the election of Cardinal Bergoglio satisfies many who have expressed the need for the church to select a non-European cardinal and to shift the attention toward Africa and Latin America, continents in which the Catholic Church has seen major growth in recent decades.

Likewise, we cannot ignore the impact that his election will have for the growing numbers of Hispanics in the United States. As a commonly cited statistic illustrates, more than 50 percent of Catholics under the age of 25 in the United States are Hispanic.

There is tremendous joy and pride among Latin Americans and Hispanics everywhere over the election of Pope Francis. Yet, we cannot forget that the moment a cardinal accepts the position of pope, his race, ethnicity or national origin become secondary, as he embraces the role of universal leader of the church.

Mario Ortiz is director of Latin American and Latino Studies at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.


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