BUENOS AIRES As Latin America’s first pope was inaugurated Tuesday in Rome, the region’s faithful hit the streets in celebration. But some wonder if Argentina’s Pope Francis can help fill the pews once the festivities are over, and if he’s the man to burnish the church’s tarnished image.
Latin America is home to about 40 percent of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics, according to the non-profit Population Reference Bureau. And Brazil and Mexico are the top-two most Catholic countries on the planet. But the power of the church has been waning, as attendance has been sapped by ongoing scandal and the rise of charismatic competition.
María Tessier, 43, was among the thousands who gathered in the predawn hours in front of Buenos Aires’ National Cathedral — where Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio regularly held mass — to watch his inauguration broadcast on large television screens.
Tessier said the church she attends has fallen into the doldrums as the congregation has slowly drifted away. But since Francis was named pope on Wednesday, she said family and friends have been calling her saying they “wanted to believe again.”
“Particularly for Latin Americans, I think this pope will feel very close to us,” she said. “We all need to believe in something and I think this will give us renewed faith in the church.”
Regular church attendance has been in steady decline in most Catholic countries. In Argentina, 21 percent of Catholics said they attended mass weekly, down from 30 percent in the 1990s, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.
Gustavo Sánchez, a 35-year-old monk of the Dominican Order, said he’s hoping Francis can reverse the trend.
“Obviously it makes us very proud but it’s also a big responsibility,” he said. “We’re obliged to pray more intensely for our pope and to lead an ecclesiastical life that is as close to his as possible.”
A poll by the Pew Research Center released this week found 73 percent of Catholics were either “happy” or “very happy” with Francis’ election. And 70 percent said his top priority should be addressing the sex-abuse scandals that have rattled the church.
But some have question if he’s right for the job. On Tuesday, BishopAccountability.org, a U.S. organization that tracks church sex-abuse scandals, asked Francis and Argentina’s Catholic Church to apologize for protecting two clergymen and to reveal the names of any other priests “credibly accused” of abuse.
The group cited the case of Father Julio César Grassi, who ran the “Happy Children” foundation and was convicted of pedophilia in 2008, and Father Napoleón Sasso, who was convicted in 2007 of abusing girls at a soup kitchen where the church moved him after pedophilia allegations had already surfaced.
“For [then]-Cardinal Bergoglio to be advocating for convicted priests in 2007 is quite shocking, and for him to refuse to meet with victims is inexcusable,” said Anne Barret Doyle, the co-director of the abuse-tracking group. “We’re not just concerned, we are alarmed. And we hope that Francis’ pontificate is different than his archdiocese of Buenos Aires.”