BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Some crying, others praying, Argentines poured into churches on Wednesday to celebrate the surprise election of one of their own as Latin America’s first pope, with many hoping Francis I will bring his common touch to the Vatican.
Churchgoers in the mainly Roman Catholic country said they want to see Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio - a 76-year-old Argentinian Jesuit respected for his humble lifestyle - bolster faith in the Church after a series of scandals.
“I hope he changes all the luxury that exists in the Vatican, that he steers the church in a more humble direction, something closer to the gospel,” said Jorge Andres Lobato, a 73-year-old retired state prosecutor.
“This is a blessing for Argentina,” one woman shouted in the streets of central Buenos Aires.
Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, who has had a distant relationship with Bergoglio during her six years in power, congratulated him in a two-sentence open letter.
Bergoglio has criticized Argentine politicians for failing to do more to fight poverty in a country in the grip of high inflation and with a long history of economic instability.
Bergoglio angered the government by speaking out against laws sponsored by leftist Fernandez over the last two years legalizing gay marriage and abortion in cases of rape.
Few Argentines thought Bergoglio, known for his ascetic lifestyle and dedication to the poor, would be chosen.
Within minutes, Twitter feeds went wild with the phrase “The hand of God, again,” in reference to soccer star Diego Maradona, one of Argentina’s best-known sons, who used the phrase after being accused of using his hand to score a goal against England in the 1986 World Cup.
Bergoglio - who has spoken in favor of dialogue rather than dogma as the remedy to the problems faced by the Church - joked about Argentina’s far-flung position in South America in his first public comments from the Vatican after being elected.
His brother Cardinals “went to the end of the world” to find a new Pope, he said.
“He is a very serious figure, with moral clout ... but very down to earth,” said Monsignor Eduardo Garcia of the Cathedral of Buenos Aires.
Argentine television aired interviews with churchgoers who said they had seen Bergoglio from time to time praying in the pews side by side with average parishioners.
He will be known as Pope Francis I, or Francisco I in Argentina and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world.
He was criticized in “The Silence”, a book about his handling of the case of two Jesuits thrown in jail during Argentina’s violent 1976-1983 dictatorship for their work in poor neighborhoods. Those who defend Bergoglio say there is no proof behind the claims that he failed to protects the priests.
The decision by 115 cardinal electors sequestered in a secret conclave in the Sistine Chapel came sooner than many experts expected because there were several front runners before the vote to replace Pope Benedict, who resigned in February.
The cardinals faced a thorny task in finding a leader capable of overcoming crises caused by priestly child abuse and a leak of secret papal documents that uncovered corruption and rivalry inside the Church government or Curia.
The wave of problems is thought to have contributed to Benedict’s decision to become the first pontiff in 600 years to abdicate.
Writing and additional reporting by Hugh Bronstein; Editing by Kieran Murray, Michael Roddy and Giles Elgood