CNS PHOTO | ENRIQUE MARCARIAN, REUTERS
People celebrate the election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as pope, at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires, Argentina, March 13.
Lawyer Diego Morales often walks past the Metropolitan Cathedral in Buenos Aires.
He recently popped in, however, taking a moment for prayer and reflection and to give thanks for what was previously unthinkable: that local Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio would be elected pope.
Many Argentines expressed emotions of shock, surprise and pride that the Church would elect one of their own as pontiff, especially as they remember Pope Francis more as a humble servant, who made the poor his priority, rather than as someone seeking status and power.
His origins in South America made it seem even more improbable that he would become leader of the Universal Church.
"He came from the end of the world," the daily La Nacion announced in a headline.
Pope Francis became perhaps the best-known Argentine since soccer strikers Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona.
"He's the same person now as he was then," said hardware store owner Antonio Franco, who was taught catechism classes by a young Father Bergoglio. "He's a very humble person."
"Even for some Jesuits, he was excessively modest," said Jose Maria Poirier, director the Catholic magazine El Criterio. "But he's authentically that way."
Pope Francis endeared himself to many by acting like a common man, Poirier told Catholic News Service.
He lived in a room next to the archdiocesan headquarters and cooked for himself. He had been preparing to move into a home for retired and sick priests, where he planned to celebrate Mass daily and help care for older prelates.
Poirier said the pope never went out to eat – except in archdiocesan missions in poor neighbourhoods or to speak with a priest needing attention; rejected all invitations to society-style gatherings; and rode public transit.
"He never had a car," Poirier added. With public transit, "He said that I lose less time and meet the people."
The desire to not lose time describes Pope Francis' abilities in administration, he added. He built parishes, promoted the priesthood to potential seminarians coming from poor barrios and overhauled archdiocesan ministries during his 15 years at the helm of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires.
Mostly, though, the then-archbishop wanted the Church to be closer to the people – regardless of income, Poirier said.
He made his mark in the media, too, by leading protests against same-sex marriage and abortion laws in Argentina.
But he also protested against corruption – a touchy topic in Argentina, where a black market in U.S. dollars thrives and which ranks 102nd in the world on the annual survey by anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.
Pope Francis has been critical of the International Monetary Fund and the global economic system, especially after the 2001 peso crisis in Argentina.
The country devalued its currency at the time, setting off widespread protests and hardship, along with political unrest.
Pope Francis participated in commissions dealing with the fallout and took to the media to ask people to support those suddenly impoverished.