Latin America Sees Change Under Region's First Pope

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Associated Press + More

By KATHERINE CORCORAN, Associated Press

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The famous words uttered to announce that a leader of the Catholic Church has been chosen now have special resonance for Latin America, which had felt neglected by the Vatican and has finally produced the New World's first pope.

"''Habemus Papam.' 'WE have a pope,'" said Tom Quigley, former policy adviser on Latin American and Caribbean affairs at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "This will instill a sense of pride and happiness and will have a very positive effect."

[PHOTOS: The Election of Pope Francis I]

The selection of former Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as pope is already energizing the world's most Catholic continent, which has been rapidly losing its faithful.

Many hope Pope Francis will bring a familiar cultural warmth, while pushing the church to address a divisive gap between rich and poor in the region. He is also seen as someone who could bridge Latin America's left-right political split as a conservative devoted to fighting poverty and not afraid to speak out against the hierarchy.

But first, the papacy of Francis is being seen as an overdue acknowledgement of the home of 40 percent of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics that felt distant from former Pope Benedict XVI.

"It's a recognition of the millions of Spanish-speaking faithful who belong to the church," said Salvadoran President Mario Funes.

[READ: Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina Elected Pope Francis]

Almost everything about Pope Francis suggests a shift from Benedict, his reserved academic predecessor, who put his focus on saving Europe and was criticized for waiting seven years before visiting Spanish-speaking Latin America on a trip last year to Mexico and Cuba.

The new pope picked a name that has never been used, an apparent reference to a humble friar who dedicated his life to helping the poor. He comes from an order, the Jesuits, that had never produced a pope. He considers social outreach, rather than doctrinal battles, to be the essential business of the church.

"For me it's a sign from God, who is inviting us to commit ourselves to a continental mission," said Bishop Eugenio Lira, secretary-general of the Mexican Conference of Bishops. "He will imprint his Latin American personality ... He knows the joys, the pains, the problems and the opportunities of the people of Latin America and the Caribbean and that will create a very close relationship."

[PHOTOS: History of Papal Conclaves]

Latin America, with roughly 600 million people, is home to some of the world's poorest and most violent countries, with organized crime and drug trafficking causing a spike in killings through the region in recent years. It remains one of the most unequal regions in the world, according to the World Bank, though the gap has been closing in recent years and more people have move into the middle class.

Francis was unafraid to challenge the Argentine government for being too liberal or to label fellow church members as hypocrites for forgetting that Jesus Christ bathed lepers and ate with prostitutes.

"His discourse is very close to the social doctrine of the church," said Elio Masferrer, a religion expert at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History. "That includes the criticism that in this time there are sectors of the clergy who behave like aristocrats, like princes of the church."

But one of his main challenges will be to woo back the followers the church has lost to Protestant evangelicals or just to secularism, with some of the biggest drain occurring in the poorest communities.

Perhaps nowhere in Latin America has the church been losing ground faster than in Brazil.

The nation still has more Catholics than any other — 124 million people self-identified as following the faith in the 2010 Census, 65 percent of the population. However, just a decade earlier 74 percent of Brazilians were Catholic, and in 1970 that figure was 92 percent.

The Pentecostal churches expanded rapidly in poor areas in Brazil, offering the downtrodden real-life guidance on employment and education, while the Catholic church was perceived to have largely abandoned poor urban areas in cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo.