WASHINGTON –– Three hours had passed since the Vatican announced the first Latin American pope, but the gathering of mostly immigrants from Central and South America couldn't stop smiling and couldn't stop building a mountain of hopes pegged to the papal election of Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
The concerns before his election were many for the Latin American faithful gathered at the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Washington, where they attended a Mass marking the beginning of Pope Francis' reign.
Their worries included seeing family members and friends leave the Catholic faith for Protestant sects in their native cities and towns in Latin America and the United States.
In interviews with Catholic News Service, they also spoke of the erosion of trust that others have of the church because of the sex abuse crisis and a perception that the church hierarchy excluded Latin Americans at its highest rungs — until now.
Their worries seemed to dissipate in the midst of the joy that came with the historic election of Pope Francis.
Carola Cerezo-Allen said the even though "the pope's a pope for everyone," it is natural to be excited to have one who comes from her native Argentina.
Even though she had planned to go to Mass the day the announcement of a new pope came, the moment was particularly joyous. Even her U.S.-born son was excited about it, she said. And it couldn't come at a better time since the church has been going through "a hard time," she said.
Fredis Hernandez, 32, is originally from El Salvador but lives in Washington. He also marked the moment by attending Mass.
"We deserved a Latin American pope," he said.
Latin American Catholics make up more than 40 percent of the world's Catholic population. Yet they haven't played a role of visible importance at the Vatican, Hernandez told CNS.
"This gives us relevance," he said.
Hernandez said that since Pope Francis understands the landscape of Latin America, his pastoral experience may be able to help stem the loss of faithful. Hernandez said he has seen and felt the pain of having family and friends move away from the Catholic Church. It's a loss that has spread among Latinos in the United States, too, he said.
Lilibeth Diaz said she held hope that with arrival of Pope Francis something could be done so that, like the prodigal son, those who have left the church could return and be welcomed with happiness.
"Faith is not something we practice alone. It is something we are as a community," said the 24-year-old from Maryland.
She said she watched the developments on the Internet and it would be a moment she would one day tell her children about. Inspired by the events, her fiance Nelson Bernal, 32, drew a large poster of Pope Francis. He took it to church, where it was displayed near the altar.
Bernal said that as a Latin American, Pope Francis would understand what it's like to be part of a people who struggle, yet do so with humility. That humility and dialogue will help at a critical time in the history of the church, Bernal said.
Along with Hernandez, he said he admired the humility with which Pope Francis embraced his first public acts: not donning the cape, bowing for the public's blessing, choosing a simple cross.
"It caught my attention," Hernandez said, referring to what the pope chose not to do or wear. "He didn't put on anything except the feet of Christ."