- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2013

CORDOBA, Argentina | Argentines celebrated exuberantly Wednesday, after learning that the cardinal from Buenos Aires was elected the first pope from the Western Hemisphere.

Hundreds celebrated at the Metropolitan Cathedral where Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, had served as archbishop since 1998.

In Cordoba, the country’s second-largest city, the faithful set off fireworks after the election by the conclave of cardinals in the Vatican. The new pope took the name Francis I to lead the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

“The pope from the end of the world,” screamed a banner headline from the TN news channel. “Argentina has a pope for the first time in history.”

Cardinal Bergoglio had not been mentioned among the key or contenders in the conclave, and his surprise election made the choice “doubly joyful,” said Carmen Ramirez, 30.

It is also a choice that marks a moment of hope in a country left with low self-confidence after a half-century of chronic economic malaise and political upheaval where 92 percent of the population of 42 million is Catholic.

“We’re in such a strange moment in Argentina, with much hate, much division — a very divided country,” Ms. Ramirez said. “We needed something like this.”

“I never imagined this could happen,” said Martin Sanches, 37. “It’s historic I believe that a pope from a Third World country like Argentina will be something great.”

Throughout Latin America, Catholics joined the festivities, ringing church bells, honking car horns and shouting in joy.

In Panama, public relations executive Nelsa Aponte broke into tears. “This made me cry. I had to get out my handkerchief,” he said.

At the St. Francis of Assisi church in San Juan, Puerto Rico, church secretary Antonia Veloz and Jose Antonio Cruz slapped their hands in jubilant high-fives.

“It’s a huge gift for Latin America. We waited 20 centuries. It was worth the wait,” Ms. Veloz said.

Dr. Victor De la Rosa, a pediatrician in Mexico City, said the new pope “is going to allow Latin America to be more involved in the church’s decision, above all in modernizing the church.”

Born in 1936 in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Bergoglio was born to working-class Italian immigrants. He went to public school before joining the Jesuits in his early 20s. The order sent him to seminary in the northern Argentine city of San Miguel de Tucuman, and he spent several years pursuing his studies in Chile and Spain.

Within four years of his 1969 ordination, he rose to the religious order’s top post in Argentina, a country whose cultural history is closely linked with the Jesuits.

The order set up missions here in the early 16th century, eventually founding the country’s first university in Cordoba.

Following Jesuit tradition, Cardinal Bergoglio started teaching at Buenos Aires’ El Salvador high school while still in college. After leaving his leadership post in 1979, he returned to San Miguel de Tucuman to serve as a teacher. He was known as a humble, hands-on parish priest.

He was appointed an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires in 1992, and Pope John Paul II picked Cardinal Bergoglio to lead the archdiocese of 182 parishes six years later.

Elevated in 2001, he impressed his flock in crisis-prone Argentina with his modest lifestyle. Cardinal Bergoglio declined to move to the episcopal palace and continued to live in a small apartment where he cooked his own meals. He rode public buses, visited Buenos Aires slums and professed his love for the San Lorenzo de Almagro soccer team.

His tenure also was touched with controversy. Cardinal Bergoglio frequently clashed with President Cristina Fernandez, most notably in 2011 when she succeeded in making Argentina the first Latin American country to legalize homosexual marriage, which he had opposed vocally.

Ms. Fernandez on Wednesday congratulated the new pope in a short letter, wishing him “fruitful pastoral work.”

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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