South Florida Reaction to America's First Pope

Mar 14, 2013

Miami Beach's St Joseph's Catholic Church, in the heart of "Little Buenos Aires"
Credit Christine DiMattei

Pope Francis may not be from the United States, but for many in South Florida, the fact that he's from Argentina is even better.

Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski has hailed the selection of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as a "great thing” for the hemisphere, and called the new Pope an American.

“Latin America, as Pope Benedict described it, is the continent of hope. And it is the continent in which we have the largest growing number of Catholics in the world.”

Wenski believes it was a shrewd political move by The Vatican to look to the Americas for its new leader.

“As the focus of the population center moves away from Europe because of secularization, Latin America was a natural place for a future pope.”

Miami Beach has the largest concentration of Argentines in the United States.

At the Buenos Aires Café on the northern edge of the city, 36-year-old Gonzalo Ruiz was celebrating the Pope's election with some friends. He was surprised when his parents called from Argentina to tell him the news.

"I didn't know," he said. "I was driving and they called me so excited. (I’m) very happy about it."

At nearby St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Peruvian parishioner Millie Miranda says she hopes the new Pope will serve as a voice for impoverished people in developing countries.

"We have hunger there.  We are people are in need.  So I think he's in touch with real people for what's going on now."

St. Joseph's Pastor, Father Juan Sosa, is from Cuba.  He says when he heard the news that the Archbishop of Buenos Aires was chosen as the new pontiff, his jaw dropped.

"Then I said 'This is terrific!'  This is someone who's going to bring his own experience of pastoral life, as well as his simplicity as a Bishop of the church, a cardinal, and his knowledge and identification with the poor and the needy throughout the world."

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, South Florida is home to some 44,000 Argentinian expatriates. It’s also a very popular vacation destination.

Pope Francis' selection is seen as highly symbolic for the Roman Catholic Church, an organization that prides itself on symbolism.

The Jesuit, who is Vatican outsider, is being called everything from a commoner to a saint. 

At the state's oldest Roman Catholic Diocese in Saint Augustine, the new pope is also being heralded as one of the best things that could have happened to the Holy See.

Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez escaped Cuba as a child and grew up in South Florida. He eventually became auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Miami, before moving to his current position in St Augustine.

“I felt a great connection, a very happy connection in a way the Catholic church is universal just look at the number that you see, but the catholic church in its governance needs to be universal as well. I see it happening, and this is the proof.”

Since Jesuits are known for their theological research and understanding of the Bible, Estevez feels the new Pope is well positioned to help the church sort through some of its old problems.

“He is a man of great knowledge of discovering the will of God to particular circumstances," he said. "I would be very confident that in giving guidance to huge problems, he would be very accurate.”