They filled every pew of the squat cathedral here in the heart of Buenos Aires, devotion for their church and for their sometimes overlooked country brimming in their veins. At last a pastor in black cassock climbed to the pulpit. “Habemas Papam,” he intoned and they could no longer keep still, clapping and waving small flags.
In Buenos Aires it had been as evening rush hour was just stirring when word began to spread that their own Catholic leader, Jorge Bergoglio, had been chosen. For many in this city of high inflation, choking traffic and sometimes painful political memories, it seemed a blessing almost too unexpected to believe.
Among those who rushed here were students from the Argentina Catholic University. “It is about celebrating together,” said Bautista Gigena, 18, admitting he had cried at the news. “We are so glad.” Beside him, Juan Francisco, 19, grasps an Argentina soccer shirt and a rosary. The last, he reveals, had traveled all the way to Rome with his father where it was blessed by Pope Benedict
Each has attended mass with Bergoglio and there is no scintilla of doubt in their young eyes what kind of world spiritual leader he will be. A fine one. “He is really close to the people,” says Francisco, referring to his reputation for humble living – even as Archbishop he rode the bus here and eschewed the grandiose official residence for a small apartment. “He will be between John Paul and Benedict. He will be a mix of the two,” he predicts.
As the pastor speaks inside, outside the crowd swells fast. The atmosphere is not one of worship and nor quite of the soccer stadium either. But ebullient – and nationalistic – it is. “Argentina, Argentina!” is the chant that ripples from the front at the edge of the throng at the Cathedral steps deep into the square, the Casa Rosada of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, a few hundred yards beyond. Slowly song breaks out with verses everyone at once seems to know. “Love, Love, to the New Pope!”
There are many reasons Argentina thinks this a miracle. As Archbishop, Bergoglio devoted energies to repairing a Church that for decades stood accused of having closed its eyes to the brutalities of the 1976-1983 dictatorship. But the faithful here also see a church somewhat diminished in a society that may today be among the most secular of Latin America. Bergoglio and Ms Fernandez have fought frequently as she has moved the country towards gay marriage and allowing abortions after rape. “The church has been in retreat and this is why this is important,” says the young Bautista. “It has been due first to the government that has been fighting the charge and fighting religion.”
There is one more miracle. It is Argentina giving the world its first pope from the Americas and not Brazil, the bigger, richer neighbor, has some had expected. “Yes, that is good,” says Camilla Navarro, 18, with a guilty grin. “I would have been a little jealous. Argentinians are a proud and passionate people.” Never more so than today.