Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the only candidate for the papacy that Deacon Alejandro D. Manunta knew anything about.
Manunta, also a native of Argentina, remembered Bergoglio emerging as a strong contender in the 2005 conclave, where he finished second in the vote that elected Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.
Bergoglio apparently remained a favorite among his fellow cardinals, who chose him Wednesday after just five ballots to succeed Benedict.
And Manunta, who now lives in Amherst, couldn’t have been happier about the selection.
“We have been wanting this for a long time, to be able to see a pope coming from a place other than Europe,” Manunta said. “This is sending a beautiful message to the church and to the world. The message is, we need to start seeing more universality. That is what ‘catholic’ means.”
Bergoglio, 76, is now Pope Francis, the first Latin American and first Jesuit priest to lead the worldwide church and its 1.2 billion members.
His election resonated with Hispanics well beyond his home country.
“Oh, my goodness. It’s a big blessing – not only for Argentina, but for the whole world and for all Hispanic people,” said Irma Muniz, of Buffalo, who was shocked when she saw a Latin American man walk onto the external loggia of St. Peter’s Basilica in papal vestments.
Muniz, a native of Puerto Rico, was among dozens of Hispanic members of Holy Cross Church who were in a celebratory mood Wednesday inside the church hall, where more than 100 parishioners from three West Side parishes gathered for a Lenten supper and service.
Milagros Ramos, who also hails from Puerto Rico, said she nearly jumped out of her shoes upon hearing that an Argentine cardinal had been elected pope.
“It’s history-making. It’s huge,” said Ramos, director of the office of cultural diversity for the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. “I knew that he had gotten a lot of votes the last time, but I didn’t think this time [he was in the running] because of his age.”
Ramos predicted that Hispanics – the fastest-growing segment of American Catholics – will be very excited about having a pope who shares their language and cultural roots. “It’s a feeling that we’re finally – I don’t want to say welcomed, but, I feel, more a part of it,” she said. “I can’t explain it. It’s new. It’s fresh.”
Local Jesuits also were basking in the papal glow.
“I would say there haven’t been many bigger surprises for me,” said the Rev. Ronald W. Sams, pastor of St. Michael Church and superior of a group of eight Jesuit priests who live together near the downtown church. “He sounds like a very pastoral, good man. He’s one of our family. We’re very happy with the choice.”
The Jesuits also operate two venerable local institutions, Canisius High School and Canisius College. “The fact he is a Jesuit makes it a little more exciting,” said Kenmore resident and Canisius College alumna Meghan Burke, who is currently doing graduate studies at Catholic University.
Burke has long appreciated the Jesuit order’s intense focus on education and service. “It emphasizes an aspect of Catholicism that I think is quite admirable,” she said.
More than 76 percent of Argentina’s population is Catholic – about 31 million people, making it the 11th-largest Roman Catholic population in the world.
Manunta, who visited the country just last month, said the Catholic faith remains vibrant there.
“People are very devout,” he said. “You climb into a cab, and the cabdriver has images of the saints across the dashboard.”
There are statues of Mary in public squares, and street names often feature the names of Catholic saints, he said.
“It’s very difficult for a person to be in a place like Argentina and not be in contact with the faith in some way,” he said.
Manunta hopes the church can export some of that fervor to other parts of the world where Catholicism needs a boost.