When the Rev. Marco Ortiz saw the name of the new pope flash across the TV, he whispered to himself: “Wow.”
The selection of Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina to lead the Roman Catholic Church, Ortiz realized, ushered in an era of firsts.
He is the first pope from the Americas. And he is the first pope who shares the mother tongue of many Latin Americans — Pope John Paul II spoke fluent Spanish, but with the accent of a non-native speaker, and Benedict spoke it more haltingly.
“This is history,” said Ortiz, who is Mexican and whose congregants at Divine Saviour Catholic Church in Cypress Park mostly speak Spanish. “I think the impact will be enormous, enormous.”
Across Southern California on Wednesday, many Catholics rejoiced that the background of the church’s new leader resembled theirs more closely than those of his European predecessors.
The selection of Bergoglio marked a moment of jubilation at an otherwise precarious time for America’s largest archdiocese, which has been roiled by revelations that church leaders had plotted to hide child abuse by priests from police.
About 70% of the Catholic population in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles is Latino, and it’s not uncommon in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods to see signs proclaiming “Este hogar es catolico” or This home is Catholic.
“I never thought this would happen,” said Eduardo Ahamad, 56, who runs the Rincon Argentino grocery store in Glendale. He is of Mexican and Argentine descent and had expected the new pope to come from where so many others had: Italy.
“I was ready to run outside with my flag,” he said. “I can only imagine that Argentinians are celebrating.”
At a Spanish-language Mass at St. Emydius in Lynwood, parishioners applauded when the new pope emerged. But the clapping got much louder when they learned that their new spiritual leader hailed from Argentina.
“It’s possible that he will understand other Latinos better,” Maria Ramirez, 65, said afterward in Spanish. “As the pope, he is the pope to the whole world, but I’m very pleased that he’s from Latin America.”
Another churchgoer, Teresa Gonzalez, 62, said she hoped that the new pope would mark a new chapter for the church after “the abuse that’s happened.”
“Much of the faith of Catholic people is going down,” Gonzalez said.
Latin America has the largest share of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, which some analysts said was probably a key factor in the selection of Bergoglio, who chose the name Francis.
Father Allan Figueroa Deck, a Latin American specialist at Loyola Marymount University, said Francis was poised to serve as a bridge between Europe and Latin America, just as his native country of Argentina has.
“It’s a very important development and it’s been a long time coming,” Deck said. “The seeds of Christianity that were planted 500 years ago in the Americas are finally manifesting themselves in the leadership of the church at the highest level.”
Francis, 76, has been applauded for modernizing an Argentine church that had been among the most conservative in Latin America. But he is no liberal theologian, having denounced gay marriage and adoptions by gay couples.
He is also known for his outreach to the poor and his austerity — he spurned the ornate church mansion in Buenos Aires for a spartan downtown room where he cooked his own meals. He also rode the bus. Those qualities resonated with Carlos Madrid, 60.
“He’s lived among poverty, close to the poor,” said Madrid as he cut a man’s hair in his Huntington Park barbershop. “He knows the needs we have in this continent. The rich don’t understand the life of the poor as well.”
Madrid thought the new pope would be Italian, and considering the Argentine pope’s ancestry, the barber quipped he kind of was after all. “He’s descended from an Italian mother and Italian father,” Madrid said with a chuckle.
About noon in L.A., white smoke billowed out of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, signifying the selection of the new pontiff. At the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels downtown, bells clanged and workers hurried to adorn the main entrance with yellow and white bunting. Archbishop Jose Gomez held a special Mass at 12:10.
“So my brothers and sisters, habemus papam,” he said.
In Huntington Park, Sister Guadalupe Pablo, 32, saw the pope’s origins and choice of name as reasons to rejoice.
The nun, who’s visiting from Mexico, was clad in brown vestments and selling rosaries and prayer cards for her order.
“We’ve never had a pope from Latin America, and beside that, our founder was St. Francisco de Assisi,” Pablo said, her pride evident. “Our new Holy Father is Pope Francisco I. We’ve never had a pope named Francisco.”
St. Francis of Assisi identified so strongly with the poor that he was known as “the Poverello,” or little poor man. “To our founder, all were his brothers,” Pablo said. “That the pope chose to identify with him means something beautiful.”
Times staff writers Teresa Watanabe, Emily Alpert, Ruben Vives, Christine Mai-Duc, Rick Rojas, Cindy Chang, Anh Do and Lauren Williams contributed to this report.