Pope Francis, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is the first non-European pontiff since the eighth century, bringing a distinctly New World flavor to the Vatican that Catholics hope can reverse the decades-long trend of Latin Americans leaving the church.
Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, acknowledged how unusual his non-European origins are as he greeted thousands of faithful outside St. Peter's Basilica on Wednesday night. "As you know, the duty of the conclave was to appoint a bishop of Rome. It seems to me that my brother cardinals have chosen one who is from far away, but here I am," he said shortly after his election.
Pope Francis shares his faraway home of Latin America with about 40 percent of the world's Catholics, a plurality of the world's faithful that has nonetheless eroded significantly in the past 50 years as droves of Catholics converted to evangelical Protestantism.
Roberto Blancarte, a professor at the Center of Sociological Studies at El Colegio de México, found that about 1,000 Catholics left the church every day between 2000 and 2010, adding up to a loss of 4 million congregants. Overall, Blancarte estimates that about 90 percent of Latin Americans were Catholic in 1970, compared with about 70 percent today, though the percentage varies widely by country. In the United States, the percentage of Hispanic Catholics has also been declining, but more because they are becoming more secular than converting to competing religions.
Having a Latin American pope, whose native language is Spanish, might lure back some of those Catholics to the fold.
"It could be part of an overarching process of helping to revitalize the Latin American church," said R. Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Walter Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. "A lot of Latin American Catholics will feel very proud and elated that the new pope is one of theirs and his native language is their native language."
The precipitous decline in Catholic affiliation might have nudged the cardinals into selecting a non-European pope for the first time in centuries. Seventeen percent of the cardinals in the conclave were from Latin America.
"With this bleeding of members over the last half-century it made so much sense strategically to choose a Latin American. Europe is lost, the church is in a real crisis there, but Latin America still has a chance to be salvaged," Chesnut said.
Robert P. George, a Christian conservative thinker and law professor at Princeton, said the move will be interpreted by people in Latin America as a recognition "that there is a strong Catholic culture and many faithful Catholics in Latin America."
But not all experts on Catholicism agreed. Blancarte pointed out that Pope John Paul II was unable to battle the larger trend away from Catholicism despite his unprecedented attention to the region during his 26-year papacy.
"John Paul II visited almost every country in Latin America. ... He was as much Latin American as anyone can be," Blancarte said. "The fact that [Francis] is Latin American is a marginal fact."
Miguel Zamora, an Argentine immigrant who lives in New York and works for a pharmaceutical company, said he was elated to learn the new pope is from Argentina. "I think this is going to be a big boost for Argentina," Zamora said.
But he added that the pride he feels for the pope's nationality will not necessarily coax him back to attending mass on Sundays. "I still have hopes that the church is going to change," he said.