American tourists in Ireland not surprised by Latin American pick for pope

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During a rainy Dublin afternoon, many American tourists pack the city center and prepare for the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day festivities, enjoy a visit to their ancestor’s homeland or just simply take advantage of everything Ireland has to offer. 

Here, as in other heavily Catholic cities around the world, news of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s appointment as Pope Francis was met with excitement and celebration. The city remains abuzz following the historic 266th papal choice.

“I come from a long line of Francises. My great grandpa was a Francis. Grandpa was a Francis. And my middle name is Francis,” said Brian Quinn, a Manhattan Beach, Calif. native who is visiting Ireland’s capitol city while on vacation.

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Quinn quickly added that a pope from Latin America was a step in the right direction for the Catholic Church. 

“It’s nice not to always have a European,” he said after exiting afternoon mass at St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral -- one of Dublin's main cathedrals that was originally Catholic but became Church of Ireland during the Reformation. “And he has a Jesuit background. I think that is very good, because we know he’ll be very educated and maybe a little more liberal as well.”

The 115 Roman Catholic cardinals who comprise the conclave chose Pope Francis, the Argentine Jesuit, to succeed Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI who resigned Feb. 28. After just two short days of deliberation, the white smoke at the Vatican signaled the cardinals had made their decision, and Pope Francis became the first non-European pope in nearly 1300 years and the first Latin American pontiff in papal history.

Francis’ election highlights a significant demographic shift in the Catholic Church -- about 40 percent of the world’s Catholics come from Latin America, according to a February Pew Research Center study. 

Oddly enough, throughout Dublin, the Argentine’s papal appointment wasn’t met with much surprise despite his underdog status. 

“Everyone seems to be real pleased,” said Jerry Hadley, 74, of Virginia. “I had a bet though -- I said if it isn’t someone Italian it will be someone from Latin America. I just felt that.”

And while sex abuse scandals have rocked the Catholic church and have lead to a decline in members, many say the central issues the church faces today are clergy celibacy — specifically, the canon law that forbids priests to marry — and an increasing disinterest in church activities by younger generations.

Appealing to young people

“The biggest challenge for the church is to find a way to appeal to the young people,” Hadley said, adding that the most sweeping change would be to allow priests to marry. “Do I think it would happen? Probably not.” 

But for some longtime Catholics like 67-year-old Angeleno Janis Sengupta, there remains hope that the new selection will usher in a more progressive era. 

“People are leaving because their ideas are not accepted,” she said. “But I think what people are hoping with [the new Pope] is that he will bring the Church out of the last papacy, because it was a disaster.”

This potential shift comes at a time when most U.S. Catholics see the church as a dated institution. According to a New York Times/CBS poll published in March, a majority of Americans believe that the church has lost touch with the laity because it spends more time in clandestine meetings than out on the streets with the people. 

Though Francis is considered highly conservative because of his anti-gay, anti-contraception stance, some hope he will bring a greater sense of understanding to the church, citing his work with the poor in the slums of Buenos Aires as evidence of his compassion.

“He is more personable, and he is going to relate a little bit more to current issues in the world. I am excited to see where it goes,” said 25-year-old Theresa Dougherty, who is visiting from California. “I feel like the majority of Catholics are just going to like this pope so much better.”

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