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Kinship with Pope elates Latinos

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 17. 2013 1:00AM

Salvadoran native Guadalupe Rivera's dark eyes brighten as she describes the kinship she feels with the first Latin American Pope and her hope that his commitment to the poor and faith without fanfare will rekindle Catholic fervor across the globe.

"I want to shout out to the Lord about how happy I am!" Rivera, 37, said in Spanish through an interpreter the day after Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became the first non-European in modern times to lead the world's estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.

"I feel much more committed to the church of the Lord because the Pope is Latin American," added Rivera, who has lived in Manchester for nine years. She attends St. Anne-St. Augustin Parish and works as a restaurant cook.

"There is going to be a big impulse toward the evangelization, not only of Latin America, but of the world," said Rivera, referring to the Catholic church's mission to spread the gospel message and inspire Catholics to return to the fold.

Latinos exulted in the choice of the new Pope, their shared linguistic, cultural and religious traditions, and the spotlight they hope he will train on the Western Hemisphere.

"He will be a moral support for us Latinos - that a Latino can come to... have a position like that ... (means) we can become important people in the world," said native Mexican Antonio Galvan, 39, who has lived in Manchester 10 years and works as a construction crew foreman.

"This is the beginning of a new era in the church," added Juana Leon, 34, another native Mexican and St. Anne-St. Augustin parishioner. "I'm so happy about it. Maybe it is going to be like more people are going to love him and he will attract more Latinos back to the church."

Latin America and the Caribbean already are home to more than 425 million Catholics, who represent nearly 40 percent of the church's worldwide membership, according to 2010 data compiled by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life.

Argentina alone boasts the eleventh largest Roman Catholic population in the world with an estimated 31 million followers, the Pew Research Center reported.

Hispanics also are an increasingly important component of the Catholic church in the United States. The United States has the fourth largest Catholic population in the world with Hispanics comprising 32 percent of its estimated 75 million members, the Pew Research Center reports. Among younger Catholics, Hispanics represent 47 percent of those under 40.

While Cardinal Bergoglio's election was based on his characteristics as a clergyman, the fact he is the first Pope from the Western Hemisphere sends a "hugely symbolic" message, said Christine A. Gustafson, St. Anselm College associate professor of politics who specializes in Latin America.

"It is a recognition of the importance of these Catholics. It is not that they have been ignored, but they certainly have never been put in this kind of leadership position before," she added.

Latin Americans are "delighted" with the new Pope and eager to identify with him, added Gustafson, who also is associate dean.

"Everybody is talking about him," the Rev. Marcos Gonzalez-Torres agreed.

"He is just a new hope," said Gonzalez-Torres, who is pastor of St. Aloysius of Gonzaga Parish in Nashua which, like St. Anne-St. Augustin, serves one of the state's largest Spanish-speaking Catholic populations.

"What is really exciting is that we can see he knows the reality of all Latin Americans and what unites us," he said.

Such excitement likely will benefit the church's evangelization efforts in Latin America where it faces increasing competition from evangelical Protestant denominations and rising secularism among youth, St. Anselm's Gustafson said.

"It could re-energize the evangelization effort. The church has identified that as one of its challenges in trying to call people back to the Catholic Church, especially young people," Gustafson added.

"They could be so excited by this sort of one of their own becoming Pope that this might renew their interest in the church," she said.

Jose L. Avila, 43, and his wife, Lorena, 40, never thought they would see the day when a Latin American would be Pope.

"I'm very happy that God chose this man at this moment. I'm very happy that he speaks our language," said Jose Avila of Manchester, who is a truck driver for Coca-Cola Co.

The Rev. Joseph Gurdak, a Capuchin Franciscan who is pastor of St. Anne-St. Augustin Parish, said the Argentinian cardinal's election to Pope "honors all Latin Americans."

"Finally, the New World is being recognized," said Gurdak, who speaks fluent Spanish.

The Pope brings a "simplicity, a humanness, a closeness to people and, of course, the evangelization of Spanish-speaking people. The Pope can talk directly to them and it's a wonderful thing," Gurdak added.

The Pope decision to name himself after St. Francis of Assisi also is meaningful to Latin Americans who hold the saint in high regard, Gurdak said. The Franciscan religious order introduced Catholicsm to much of Latin America and its seal is often displayed on chapel and church doors, he added.

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