SANTIAGO (Reuters) - Across Latin America, the faithful rejoiced that the new Pope Francis was one of them.
Even though some commentators said he had a reputation as being as conservative and inflexible as his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, Latin Catholics celebrated that cardinals had, in Francis’ own words, gone “to the end of the world” to find him.
“A Latino is more open to others, while a European is more closed. A change like this, with a Latin American, will be very important for us Latin Americans ... (he will be) more open, more honest,” said 75-year-old Ana Solis, a retired hospital worker, outside Santiago’s Metropolitan Cathedral in Chile.
“I’m happy because another European pope would be like eating the same bread every day,” Martin Rodriguez, a 49-year-old Mexico City cab driver, said of Argentina’s Francis, the first non-European pontiff in nearly 1,300 years.
The cardinals had faced a tough task in the conclave 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.
The new pope will take up a burden that Benedict declared in February was beyond his physical capabilities.
The reaction from Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, who two years ago accused the Vatican of hampering an inquiry into child sex abuse by Irish priests, summed up the thoughts of many.
“We pray that he will have the strength, the good health and the spiritual guidance needed to lead the Catholic Church in the many challenges it faces,” Kenny said.
For some, the 76-year-old son of an Italian immigrant railway worker was too elderly to lead a Church that needs to attract younger worshippers to fill emptying pews in parts of the world that had once been staunchly Catholic.
“I think they missed an opportunity to renew themselves: they’ve picked another old guy,” Daniel Villalpando, a 32-year-old web designer in Mexico City said. “Sure, he’s a Latino, but they got the most European of the Latinos.”
Home to 42 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Latin America far outweighs Europe’s 25 percent, although the Church has for years been losing ground to Protestant and evangelical rivals across the region.
Deise Cristina, 43, who attends Mass every week, hailed the Church for having broken “a taboo”, but said outside the cathedral in Sao Paulo, Brazil: “We are facing a lot of challenges now and I pray that the pope will help lead our youth back to the church.”
But the man who was widely reported to have come second to Joseph Ratzinger for the papacy in 2005 is not seen as bringing many changes to the way Church is run this time round.
“He’s not going to be a big liberal, there will not be big changes in Church teaching,” said Father James Bretzke, professor of moral theology at Boston College, and a Jesuit priest, like Francis. “He has a reputation of being rather inflexible and staunchly conservative.”
Donna Doucette, executive director of Voice of the Faithful, a group based outside Boston of lay Catholics that formed in reaction to the clergy sex scandals to advocate Church reform, said: “He certainly is not one who is a liberation theologian.”
“It remains to be seen whether he is a person of the 21st century or the 17th century,” she added.
For the faithful across the world though, his outlook mattered less, at least for now, than his origins and his quiet, calm demeanor as he was announced to the vast crowd in St. Peter’s Square - thanking God for choosing such a messenger.
Jorge Bergoglio is known in his native Argentina as a modest man from a middle class family, who is content to travel by bus and is deeply concerned about the social inequalities rife in his homeland and across Latin America.
Claudio Gimenez, head of the Roman Catholic church in Paraguay, said: “This is a benefit for all of Latin America, not just Argentina.”
Leonardo Steiner, general secretary of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, in Brasilia, said: “He’s a very humble man, very close to the people. We could perceive that in the way he asked for the prayer and leaned into the public.”
Denis Hart, archbishop of Melbourne and president of the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said Francis was “known for commitment to doctrine and social justice and is a humble man of simple lifestyle”.
In Nigeria, where many had hoped for a first African pope, Father Raymond Anoliefo, the priest who runs Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, in Ibeju, on the outskirts of Lagos, said: “I’m very elated, emphatic, impressed.
“It wasn’t like an obvious, well known name or popular contender ... This is clearly a divine touch. The first Jesuit, the first from Latin America, something new.”
Noting the start of what might be a new Church order, Monsignor Miguel Irizar, the former head of the Bishops’ Conference of Peru, said: “Before it was Europe that preached the Gospel to the world, now the new world of America as well as Africa and Asia must evangelize Europe.”
Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, saluted Francis “as the figure of unity for all Catholics wherever they reside”.
The official reaction to the new pope was warm, with U.S. President Barack Obama calling him “a champion of the poor and the most vulnerable among us”.
“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,” Obama said in a statement.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, an atheist who has set up a national inquiry into child abuse by institutions including the Church, said the election of a pope from the “new world” was a historic event.
She was joined by Australian abuse activists in saying he should do more to reach out to victims.
“It should certainly be among the top priorities for the new pope,” Helen Last, director of In Good Faith, which advocates for survivors of sexual abuse by the clergy.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he hoped Francis would continue to promote inter-faith talks, saying they “share the conviction that we can only resolve the interconnected challenges of today’s world through dialogue”.
The Russian Orthodox Church welcomed the election and hoped “that relations between the Orthodox and Catholic churches will develop in a positive spirit”, state-run RIA news agency quoted a spokesman for Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill as saying.
Russia’s dominant church shares the Roman Catholic Church’s conservative stance on many moral issues, but disputes still strain relations nearly a millennium after the Great Schism split Christianity into eastern and western branches. The pope and the Russian Orthodox patriarch have never met.
In Cuba, where church-state relations have warmed after years of tension and where Benedict paid a visit in 2012, President Raul Castro sent a message of congratulations.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, daughter of a Lutheran pastor, said in a statement: “Millions of believers in Germany and the whole world were waiting for this moment. Their hopes now rest on the new pope.
“I am particularly pleased, together with the Christians in Latin America, that one of theirs has been nominated to the head of the Catholic church for the first time.” Benedict is German.
The World Jewish Congress offered congratulations.
Despite the emotion, the jokes on social media soon began.
Some on Twitter called the choice of an Argentine “the hand of God”, a reference to the 1986 World Cup goal scored by Diego Maradona scored with his hand.
The banter also came thick and fast from Brazilians who had hoped one of their cardinals, including the Sao Paulo archbishop who had been considered a frontrunner, would emerge as pope.
“The pope couldn’t be Brazilian, after all, GOD is Brazilian,” tweeted Cristiano Romero, a journalist.
Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Alison Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood