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.”
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“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.”
With his election last week, Francis, 76, became the first pope ever from Latin America and the first Jesuit to hold the post. Despite questions about his past, including his role in Argentina’s Dirty War, and his conservative social positions, his modesty and humble ways have made him a popular figure here. Everybody seems to have a story about spotting the low-key cardinal on the subway or seeing him doing his own shopping. Local media reported that his two special guests at the ceremony in Rome were a garbage recycler and a school teacher.
In Buenos Aires, the ceremony often seemed like a laconic sports match. Sausage and coffee vendors kept the sleepy crowds fueled. The red-and-white banner of the San Lorenzo soccer team, which Francis is a fan of, shared space with Argentine and Vatican flags.
Graciela Ojeda, 46, arrived eight hours before the 5:30 am ceremony to beat the other faithful for a spot in the grass in the central plaza.
“We already have the best soccer players in the world and now we have a pope,” she said, as she kept an eye on the telecast from Rome. “Argentines have a reputation for being arrogant but how can we not feel proud about this?”
At about 3:30 am local time, church officials patched through a phone call from the pope to the crowd.
“Dear sons and daughters, I know you have gathered in the square. I know that you are saying prayers, I need them very much,” he said, sparking a round of applause. “I want to ask a favor of you. I want to ask for us to walk together, to care for one another, for you to care for each other.”
As dawn broke, families were sprawled on the lawn in front of the presidential palace, and vendors of pope-themed mugs, key-chains and flags poked through the crowds. It was often difficult to know who was deep in prayer and who was sleeping.
As the ceremony ended, the crowds broke out into chants of “Long live the Pope!”