The election of Argentine Jorge Bergoglio as new pope of the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday was met with excitement throughout the Inland Empire.

"Even though he's far away, he's the leader here in our church," said J. Luis Valencia, a San Bernardino resident and volunteer at that city's St. Bernardine Catholic Church, after an afternoon Mass. "He is Jesus on Earth to us."

Valencia, a religious education teacher, said members of the church heard the news on television. The pope is 76-years-old, but that's not a concern to Valencia..

"I think as you grow older, you get wiser and sometimes you need that," he said.

Bergoglio's election marks the first time a pope has come from the Americas, and the first time in more than a millennium that one has come from outside Europe. He chose the papal name Francis.

Bishop Gerald Barnes of the San Bernardino Diocese said the move signifies the importance of the church in the Southern Hemisphere as well as in America.

"There's a real excitement now on the part of our people," he said. "That's what most of us are feeling right now."

"We love the new pope," said Indira Gomez, 46 of Fontana. "We have been waiting for the Catholic church to be stronger."

Gomez and her mother Amelia Parrales, 70, also of Fontana were at their church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Rancho Cucamonga, Wednesday following the announcement. She described Pope Francis as "the new gladiator" for the church.

"She was waiting for all these days so when they made the announcement, she was so excited," Gomez said about her mother. "She wanted to come to church and thank God for the new pope."

Gomez said Francis has character and he will hopefully renew the church and rid it of corruption.

"This is a new time," she said.

Cecil M. Robeck Jr., professor of church history and ecumenics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, and co-chair of the International Roman Catholic - Pentecostal Dialogue, said Francis was among the top of his list for a new pontiff.

It's a great pick for Latino Catholics, said Robeck, who has ties to the Vatican and attended the inauguration of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Robeck serves as a Consultant to the Chairman of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization for long-term relations with the Vatican

"If they didn't go for a Roman, (Francis) was my first choice from outside," Robeck said. "I think they will be saying it's about time. I think they'll feel like they're better represented. My sense is, it is about time. They've only been Catholic in that region for 500 years. I can't say that about the Asian church or the African church at this time, but the Latin church was ready and he will be a good representative of that."

Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, was elected as what Roman Catholics consider the 265th successor of Saint Peter. He was born Dec. 17, 1936 in Buenos Aires. Francis was ordained for the Jesuits on Dec. 13, 1969 while he studied at the Theological Faculty of San Miguel.

Cardinal electors this year came from every global region. Fifty-two percent of the cardinal electors were European, while just 17 percent were from Latin America, according to Catholic News Service.

At the same time, Latin America and the Caribbean represent the world's largest Catholic population at 39 percent, while Europe is home to 24 percent of the world's Catholics, according to Pew Research Center data.

Barnes said the election of Francis, whom he described as a humble and simple man who lives out his faith, "is something that will benefit the American church" as folks in this country are "distracted" by issues facing the church, like gay marriage.

"Deep down, people are looking for a sense of the holy," Barnes said.

But hot-button issues are not the only concern for Roman Catholic leaders in the U.S.

Catholics in the U.S. are less zealous for their faith than in previous years. Just 27 percent of Catholics in America considered themselves "strong" Catholics in 2012, according to a Pew analysis of new data from the General Social Survey released Wednesday.

That number has fallen more than 15 points since the mid-1980s and is among the lowest in the 38 years since the GSS first rated the strength of religious identity. The GSS is a national survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

The waning strength of religious identity among U.S. Catholics is startling when compared with American Protestants. The Pew analysis found that 54 percent of Protestants in the U.S., or double the Catholic percentage, said their religious identity was strong in 2012.

The numbers equate to less church attendance among Catholics in the U.S.

According to the Pew analysis, the self-reported share of U.S. Catholics who say they attend Mass at least once a week has fallen from 47 percent in 1974 to 24 percent in 2012. Attendance among so-called "strong" Catholics has plummeted from 85 percent in 1974 to 53 percent last year.

Robeck said the reason people have left the church is a very hard question to answer, one that Francis may address. But it may be tied to controversial issues in the U.S.

"The pope represents Catholicism on the world level, and the American church tends to be more liberal than other parts of the world, with the exception of Europe," Robeck said.

"So you have that flight from the church, because you have people who like to support gay marriage and women priests. They've picked up a lot of Protestant concerns. Around the world they are much more convinced that authority lies with the pope in Rome. Now there may be people who say he's going to provide clear directions, but we'll wait and see."

But low attendance doesn't register among U.S. Catholics as the biggest issue facing the church.

A nationwide Pew survey released March 6 found that 34 percent of U.S. Catholics believe sex abuse and pedophelia in the church is the most important problem.

Barnes said the scandal has without question affected the church and hasn't always been handled in the right fashion. He said his prayer is that the church continues to address the problem in order to help Catholic families.

Francis must be a key figure in that process.

"He's going to have to address it vigorously and courageously," Barnes said. "It is a scandal."

Robeck said Francis should definitely speak out on the issue.

"I think that a new pope has the ability to clean house in a way," Robeck said. "He has the ability to start fresh and say this is the way it's going to be. Let's see what he does."

In contrast to the sex abuse scandal, the issues of low attendance, dishonesty and outmoded structures were among several that failed to gain more than 10 percent in terms of what Catholics in the U.S. think is the most important to address.

Just 11 percent of Catholics in the country say the church best helps society through moral guidance. More than a quarter of U.S. Catholics said the church helps society most through charitable works such as giving to the poor and feeding the hungry.

Robeck said Francis has a tremendous reputation in the Vatican and in his home country when it comes to ministering to the downtrodden.

"He lives among those people," Robeck said. "Buenos Aires is a city with a real split. You could have very expensive hotels next to shanty towns. He identifies with the poor in that region."

Barnes said Francis must also show leadership when it comes to immigration, both in the U.S. and around the world.

He said there is a "tremendous amount of work" that has to be done, and "there is a lack of respect for immigrants" across the globe.

Barnes doesn't see Francis' age as an issue. The new pontiff's work in a bustling city like Buenos Aires shows he has the stamina for the job.

"The closer I get, 76 doesn't sound too old," he said "There's a young 76 and an old 76."

Robeck said Francis has a stellar reputation among Catholics and Protestant denominations alike, and should be able to help bring those groups closer together.

"I think the gap does need to be bridged," he said.

The conclave to elect a new pope began on Tuesday with 115 cardinal electors. In 2005, the conclave to choose Benedict XVI lasted two days. Gregory X was elected in 1271 after a conclave that lasted more than two years.

Argentinian Diego Degiovanni, owner of Tango Baires Cafe in Upland, said he wasn't particularly religious and did not know much about the newly elected pope. But he does know there have been allegations of controversy and cover-up within the church in his home country.

"As the main guy in the church in Argentina, is he the one to be Pope?," Degiovanni, 31, asked. "If he can't handle it in a country like Argentina, can he handle it now?"

Despite talk of corruption and scandal, Degiovanni, who moved to the Los Angeles-metro area 11 years ago, said everybody is really excited about Francis. From his Facebook friends and family to his customers - "they're super happy about it."

"He's not a bad guy, don't get me wrong...," Degiovanni said. "He'll do good."

Fontana resident Christina Gonzalez-Salgado, 38, said there are two particular issues she would like to see Francis address during his reign.

"Promote peace and promote social justice among the various ethnicities and religions," she said, as she left her church, St. Peter and St. Paul Parish in Rancho Cucamonga.

"It's history-making," said Angelica Garcia, 40, another parishioner from St. Peter and St. Paul.

"I'm happy because he's from Argentina, Latin America," Garcia added. "Over 30 percent of Catholics are from Latin America."

Fermin Jaramillo of Fontana attended the afternoon Mass at St. Bernardine Catholic Church on Wednesday in San Bernardino.

"It's an excellent era for our church - having a new leader for the 21st century," he said.

Dolores Areas, a lifelong Catholic, said the change will be good for the church.

"Each person has a new perspective," she said.


Reach Josh via email, call him at 909-386-3894, or find him on Twitter at @RialtoNow.


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