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Fr. Joseph M. Benedict, pastor of Saint Joseph's Basilica Cathedral in San Jose, Calif., reacts Wednseday, March 13, 2013 to the news that the College of Cardinals elected Cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio of Buenos Aires, Argentina as the new pope. (Karl Mondon/Staff)

Even as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was making his first appearance Wednesday as Pope Francis, excited Catholics throughout the Bay Area already were swelling their chests with pride over the election of the first pontiff from the Americas, and eagerly discussing how it could signal a course change for the church.

Worshipers attending the midday Mass at St. Joseph Basilica Cathedral in downtown San Jose got the surprise news from the Rev. Joseph Benedict as they sat in their pews.

"Latin America has never had a pope," said Carlos Valhuerdi, a political refugee from Cuba. "The church needs a new start in its apostolic mission."

Newly elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina appears on the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica after being elected by the
Newly elected Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina appears on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica after being elected by the conclave of cardinals, at the Vatican, March 13, 2013. White smoke rose from the Sistine Chapel chimney and the bells of St. Peter's Basilica rang out on Wednesday, signaling that Roman Catholic cardinals had elected a pope to succeed Benedict XVI. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (TONY GENTILE)

The immediate reaction to the first-ever Latin American pontiff is widespread hope that Francis -- even at age 76 -- could be the breath of fresh air that signals reform and new vitality for a struggling church at a crossroads.

Many local Catholics were impressed that as Francis stood on the balcony above St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, he shyly presented himself as a man of humility and bowed his head as he asked for prayers.

"I'm very excited," said Darlene Tenes, a San Jose resident and publisher of the CatholicScoop newsletter. "Electing a Latino pope shows that the church wants something different. That is where the church is showing the fastest growth. He'll probably still be very conservative, but I think he also will be open to a new path."


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Lily Tenes, Darlene's mother, agreed, saying she believes his choice of papal name is telling.

"St. Francis of Assisi was for the poor," said Lily Tenes, 80. "I've heard the new pope lives very simply. Hopefully, he is up for a very big job."

Because the cardinals made the selection on just the fifth conclave ballot of the relatively unknown Bergoglio, even local clergy were scurrying to read up on the new pope. The Rev. Robert Rien, who had rushed back to the St. Ignatius rectory in Antioch to watch on television, was impressed about what he learned of Bergoglio's unpretentious lifestyle as a longtime archbishop of Buenos Aires.

"All of us were able to see this simple, humble man say, 'Pray for me,' " Rien said. "No other pope has ever expressed himself that humbly in front of the world at the beginning" of his papacy.

The selection of the new pontiff, who replaces Pope Benedict XVI after his stunning decision to retire, is a critical moment for a church that has struggled with membership and has been unable to move past the tarnish of scandal.

While traditional American Catholics supported Benedict's conservative views, many in the Bay Area are hoping the new pope will bring an open mind to social issues such as the role of women and contraception.

But Thomas Cattoi, a professor of Christology and Cultures at Santa Clara University, notes that Bergoglio adamantly has opposed same-sex marriage and likely will not be the agent of sweeping doctrine change.

"People are going to be very disappointed if they are expecting him to turn the church around on decisions like same-sex marriage and the place of women," Cattoi said. "But they could see a change in style. Already, he is presenting himself as a local priest of a Rome parish, and not the supreme leader of a global church."

Still, Cattoi believes the surprising selection of Bergoglio, also the first pope from the Jesuit religious order, indicates the church is ready for new vision.

"It's a very important signal picking a pope from South America," Cattoi said. "He might be able to reform what everyone believes is this enormous Vatican bureaucracy."

But the Rev. Alfonso Gomez, the former head of the Jesuit order in Argentina and who currently is on sabbatical at Santa Clara, has known the new pope 34 years and said: "He's not a reformer."

Gomez added, "I think he knows reality enough, and he's capable of making changes."

It marked a huge change that Francis, a Vatican outsider, was elected.

"This is truly a major breakthrough because it has taken the papacy out of the Old World and brought it into the New World," said Bishop Patrick McGrath of the San Jose Diocese.

Much of the discussion before the conclave was the need to elect a man of energy, and already there are questions about the new pope's age. But Derek Allen, 49, of San Francisco, sees no problem electing a 76-year-old pope.

"That's young and hopefully he won't suffer from any ill health," Allen said.

And Francis is proving to be technology-savy -- something that should resonate in the Bay Area.

"He had already sent out his first tweet about 20 minutes after the pope first spoke to the crowd," said Edison Tapalla, the social media director for the San Francisco Diocese.

Santa Clara history professor Arthur Liebscher, though, believes Francis largely will spread his message in a more time-honored method. Liebscher knows the new pope from doing research in Argentina, and he describes Francis as an authentic straight-shooter who is dedicated to the downtrodden.

"He will simply be out there with the people, listening to the people," Liebscher said.

Natalie Neysa Alund, Rick Hurd, Rowena Coetsee, Angela Woodall and Ryder Diaz contributed to this story. Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745.