New pope brings hope to Venezuela's Catholics

Election of Latin American pontiff has caused jubilation, but religious leaders say he must reinvigorate the faith.

    New pope brings hope to Venezuela's Catholics
    The announcement garnered widespread excitement among Venezuela's Catholic community[AP]

    Caracas, Venezuela - Sister Maria Elena Pelaez and other nuns at her convent in Caracas greeted the selection of the first Latin American Pope with devout jubilation.
    "I am very excited about this election, especially because he is Latin American and he has a great mission now in his hands," Pelaez told Al Jazeera after she watched the announcement on TV with her sisters. "I liked it so much that he not only blessed the people and the church, but he asked for their blessing for him."
    Home to about 40 percent of the world's Catholics, Latin American church leaders hope the selection of Pope Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, will reinvigorate the faithful.
    "Having a pope from Latin America is important, but the most important thing is his charisma," Father Pablo de Jesus D'Avila told Al Jazeera after he finished conducting mass. "This pope is known for his ability to spread the message of God; to bring the church closer to the world's less fortunate."
    Liberation theology
    Church attendance has been declining in Latin America, especially among the young, and Evangelical Protestant denominations have made inroads into the region.
    Of the world's Christian population, about half are Catholic, 37 percent are Protestant, with other denominations such as Orthodox Christians and Mormons accounting for the rest, according to 2011 figures from the Pew Research Centre.
    Pope Francis comes from the Jesuit order and worked as a teacher before becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998.

    He has also not shied away from discussing politics and economics. After Argentina's economic crisis in 2001, which saw millions fall into poverty, Francis criticised what he saw as the "ungodly" nature of unrestrained capitalism. He also sparred with Nestor Kirchner, Argentina's former president, over rising inequality in the country.
    Throughout Latin America, Catholic believers have been torn between liberation theology, which advances the struggles of the poor on earth, and the tendencies of senior church officials to side with the establishment in periods of social conflict.
    "Now that he has the power in his hands, he has the resources to work harder and deeper to get near to the world's poor, to keep doing what he was doing in a deeper and broader way," Pelaez said.
    Mixed reactions
    On the streets of Caracas and across social media, reactions to the announcement were mixed. "The Argentines already thought they were God, now that they have the pope they'll be unbearable, " tweeted Colin Harding, a consultant on Latin America, citing a conversation with a Venezuelan friend. Argentines are considered arrogant by some of their Latin American neighbours.
    Daniela Dib tweeted that Pope Francis resembles the awkward comedian Woody Allen, while @Llourinho compared him with the football star Messi, another famous Argentine.
    Cecilia Gonzalez, a receptionist in Caracas, is happy Vatican officials chose a Latin American, but she still believes the Church has a lot of work to do to regain trust after it was rocked by a series of sex abuse scandals and other problems.
    "In order to restore the faith of Catholics, the pope needs to do something about these scandals," Gonzalez told Al Jazeera. "Hopefully, he will be a fresh start for the Vatican."
    She wants the new pope to address "values" in order to decrease social violence. It's an understandable desire for someone living in a country that faced more than 19,336 murders in 2011.
    As he talked with other parishioners leaving mass, Father D'Avila said he "had always wanted to have at least one pope from Latin America".
    "But," he said, "the most important thing is for the people in charge of local churches to be able to appeal to the youth."

    Follow Chris Arsenault on Twitter: @AJEChris

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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