VATICAN CITY – The pope may be considered by his followers to be head of the universal Catholic Church, but that doesn’t stop national feelings from bubbling to the surface when a new pontiff is named.
Before the conclave this week to elect a successor to Benedict XVI, patriotism was on frequent display in St. Peter’s Square by pilgrims waving national flags in hope that a man from their country would be selected. Argentines went wild when the archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, emerged as the cardinals’ choice to lead the Roman Catholic Church.
On Saturday, Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, addressed thousands of journalists and others in a vast auditorium in the Vatican. Waving prominently in the audience, however, wasn’t a flag from Argentina but from its great neighbor, Brazil, seemingly in solidarity with the world’s first South American pontiff.
Brazil, home to nearly 200 million people, is the world’s most populous Catholic country. But the percentage of Catholics there, about 90% just a few decades ago, has slipped to between 60% and 70% as residents fall away from the faith or defect to one of many growing evangelical Protestant sects.
Still, Brazilians have been considered papal contenders in both 2005, after the death of John Paul II, and this year, after Benedict’s shock resignation.
In his remarks Saturday, Francis mentioned his “dear friend” Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes, who was regarded as a serious candidate in 2005 when he was archbishop of Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city.
Francis said that in this week’s conclave, when it became clear he had secured the two-thirds majority vote necessary to be elected, Hummes jumped up to embrace him. “He hugged me, kissed me and told me: ‘Don’t forget the poor,’” the pope said.
The current archbishop of Sao Paulo, Odilo Pedro Scherer, was on many Vatican watchers’ list of leading candidates going into this year’s conclave. Scherer said he felt no pressure once inside the Sistine Chapel, where the cardinals cloistered themselves to cast their ballots.
“I had my feet on the ground, knowing there were many other people with many possibilities,” Scherer said Thursday morning, hours after Bergoglio’s election.
As for how Brazilian prelates felt about the elevation of an Argentine and not one of their own, Cardinal Raymundo Damasceno Assis laughed.
“The rivalry is more on the soccer field,” he said. “In the religious field, obviously this rivalry doesn’t exist.”