First Latin American pope 'very exciting,' faithful say

Vatican TV

Presentation of the new Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio

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by Chris Patterson

(CNN) -- Word of the election of the Roman Catholic Church's first Latin American pope quickly spread through the region.

With its approximately 480 million adherents, Latin America is home to an overwhelming plurality of the world's Catholics, but no one from the region (or hemisphere, for that matter) has been ever been chosen to lead the church as pope.

The announcement that Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would become the new pontiff changed that. Bergoglio, who chose the name Pope Francis I, was the archbishop of Buenos Aires until last year. He is 76.

"I am truly still very surprised...not just that a Latino pope came out, but that he is an Argentinian from Buenos Aires," the Rev. Eduardo Mangiarotti told CNN en Español.

In St. Peter's Square, a woman from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, said she was thrilled by the news.

"As a youth, and as a Catholic student, and as a Mexican, I am absolutely overwhelmed with emotion (at) the fact that we have a new pope that will represent that part of the (world). ... That is something very exciting. I feel that Mexico has been a country that has suffered a lot, and so has Latin America, but it is a people that has always put trust in God, so it is absolutely wonderful to represent our part of the world this time around."

Beside her, a woman from Mexico City said her heart jumped when she heard the announcement that a pope had been picked.

"I'm so excited," she said. "It's a reason of being proud tonight, because Latin America is a very important Catholic area and now it's going to be totally represented here, so I'm so proud and I'm so happy today. ... It's going to help a lot, a Latin American pope, it's going to help. It's going to rebuild many things, and it's a new start."

Before Wednesday's announcement, speculation had surged that the church might select its first non-European pope of the modern era.

"It would be an enormous gesture to name a Latin American pope," Virginia Garrard-Burnett, a professor of history and religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said earlier this week.

Precisely because Catholicism is losing ground in the region, a pope from there could be a boost for the faith, she said.

About 39% of all Catholics live in Latin America, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.