Latin America & Caribbean

Wry Brazilian welcome for Argentine Pope

A woman rests against a wall as she listens to a radio announcement of the new Pope aired inside the Cathedral in Rio de Janeiro
Image caption Brazil is home to the largest Catholic community in the world

Brazilians reacted with a mixture of disappointment that the papacy had not come to their country, pride that it was a Latin American, and a fair bit of humour that it had gone to old rivals Argentina.

On social networks many people made fun of the popular saying, "God is Brazilian".

"If God is Brazilian," asked one person, "then why is the Pope from Argentina?"

In St Peter's Square in Rome, Brazilians danced and waved their national flag and insisted they were happy over the choice of Pope Francis, despite much speculation that Sao Paulo's Archbishop Odilo Scherer was the leading Latin American candidate.

One of the first engagements of the new Pope will be to come to the city of Rio de Janeiro to help celebrate World Youth Day from 23 to 28 July.

At the headquarters in Rio, where they are preparing for the event, volunteers shouted: "Long live the Pope" when Francis appeared on TV, and joined with him in prayer at the start of his papacy.

Friendly rivalry

The church in Brazil is under enormous pressure due to the growth of evangelical churches and a rise in secularism.

Image caption Brazilian Cardinal Odilo Scherer had been mentioned as a leading Latin American candidate

There had been a hope that a Brazilian pope would help to stem that challenge, and it is likely that expectation will extend to a pope from neighbouring Argentina, a Church leader who clearly understands the region well.

Pope Francis is the first pontiff from Latin America, where four in 10 Catholics live.

Brazil and Argentina are longstanding rivals, especially on the football pitch, so there was a lot of humour on social networks.

On Twitter, one person claimed that atheism was certain to rise in Brazil now that the Pope was from Argentina, while another said it would certainly boost the evangelical church.

Another tweet, in a reference to the famous "hand of God" episode involving footballer Diego Maradona in a match against England in 1986, claimed the new Pope would be likely to allow football "hand goals".

Prompted by the same incident, another Brazilian on Twitter said the new Pope shouldn't be called Francis I, but Diego II.

There is also a hash tag running on Twitter #PopeIsArgentineanButGodisBrazilian.

Church 'opening up'

Despite all the humour, there is certain to be a general welcome for a pope from South America which has sometimes been dubbed "the forgotten continent".

Image caption Challenging the growth of evangelical churches in Latin America will be a key task for Pope Francis

Flavio Scherer, brother of Cardinal Odilo Scherer, said he was "relieved" by the decision.

"I am not disappointed," the retired university professor told BBC Brasil. "On the contrary, if elected the pressure on my brother would have begun immediately.

"The Catholic Church needs to act as quickly as possible to stem the loss in followers," he added.

The secretary general of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops, Leonardo Steiner, said that the choice of a pope from the Americas was a result of the opening up of the Catholic Church.

"No longer is the Church only turned towards Europe," he said.

"If it had been a Brazilian, we would have been happy, but we are happy," he said.