Argentines thronged Buenos Aires’s cathedral in central Plaza de Mayo square, where some knelt to pray and others wept for joy, after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named the first non-European pope in over 1,200 years.
“This is a sign from God for Latin America,” said Ramiro Arnulphi, a 23-year-old law student from the western province of Mendoza, as drivers blew car horns in celebration. “I came to thank God for this blessing for Argentina and the world.”
Bergoglio, 76, was born in Buenos Aires to a family of Italian immigrants and taught theology, philosophy and psychology before becoming a bishop in 1992. The first Jesuit to lead the Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion followers, Bergoglio is a humble person who maintains close contact with ordinary people, said Ana Maria Perez Bodria, head of the Catholic Action group in Argentina, who has known him for 15 years.
“As a cardinal he lived beside the cathedral, he’s an evangelist and humble,” Perez said in an interview at the cathedral. “Every Holy Thursday he would conduct masses in hospitals, prisons and slums to ask people to unite.”
When he was appointed cardinal in 2001, Bergoglio urged family and friends to forgo trips to Rome and instead donate funds to help relieve poverty in his country, which was then in the throes of its worst-ever economic crisis. In his first words as pope, he told thousands celebrating at the Vatican that the new Bishop of Rome was found “at the end of the world.”
Bergoglio angered President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in 2010 when he helped organize marches opposing her government’s plans for Argentina to become the first Latin American country to legalize same-sex marriages.
The legislation wasn’t “just a political question but intended to destroy God’s plan,” Bergoglio said at the time.
Still, Fernandez plans to attend the Pope’s inauguration, her spokesman Alfredo Scoccimarro told reporters in Buenos Aires.
Fernandez congratulated Bergoglio and wished him success in achieving “justice, equality, fraternity and world peace,” according to a statement posted to her Twitter account.
“Bergoglio is a fantastic man who can do a lot, teach love, he’s a man of peace,” said Idia Lopez, 80, a member of Argentine Catholic Action who met with him during spiritual retreats. “Being a cardinal, he traveled by subway or buses.”
Jorge Garcia, who runs a news stand on one of the capital’s main thoroughfares, said the appointment came as a surprise.
“It’s like saying saying your little neighborhood soccer club was going to beat Barcelona,” said Garcia. ‘Nobody expected it.’’
Bergoglio’s interests include classical music, reading Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges and supporting Buenos Aires soccer team San Lorenzo, according to local newspaper La Nacion.