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Sunday, Mar 24 2013 03:33 PM

JOSE GASPAR: New pope, new hope for Roman Catholics

By JOSE GASPAR, Contributing columnist

A viewer called the 29 Eyewitness newsroom frustrated by the heavy television coverage we were affording to the selection of the new pope. When word came that white smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel, the world waited to find out who it would be.

Except this one caller.

"Nobody cares about a new pope," said the unidentified man, who apparently was angry that his favorite shows had been blown away by all the news coverage. But even non-believers, non-Catholics, CINOS -- Catholics-in-name-only -- along with the irate TV viewer should care or at least pause to think about the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as Pope Francis. Local reaction by the faithful has been positive to this historic first pope who hails from the Americas.

"I am very excited that it's somebody from South America. It's going to be very good for all of the church," said Emily Ripperger, a parishioner at St. Francis Church.

Here's another thing to pause about: Why select someone as pope from a Spanish-speaking country? According to statistics from the Vatican's pontifical yearbook, there are an estimated 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world. A staggering 41.3 percent of the world's Catholics live in Latin America, from Mexico on the north to Chile in the south.

Even so, other religions have been making inroads here, causing the Catholic Church to lose membership, as many who are dissatisfied with Catholicism for myriad reasons choose to go elsewhere. Could it be the Vatican see its future in places such as Latin America and thus the voting cardinals chose to invest in someone from the region?

"We think it's good for the Latino population. Hispanics are a major part of the church, and we're very excited about having a Latino pope as our new father," said Emilio Huerta, another parishioner at St. Francis Church.

It's a similar story in the Central Valley when in 2011, the Vatican chose Armando Ochoa -- the son of Mexican immigrants -- as the new bishop of the Diocese of Fresno. The diocese takes in eight counties: Fresno, Kern, Inyo, Madera, Merced, Mariposa, Tulare and Kings. It is the 14th largest diocese in the nation with more than 1 million Catholics. And again, the vast majority -- 75 percent -- of Catholics in the district are Hispanic, according to the Diocese of Fresno.

"The College of Cardinals sent a message about the large Hispanic presence that needs addressing," said Bishop Ochoa during a televised news conference in Fresno. "The College of Cardinals heard anxiety among the 19 cardinals from Latin and Central America. They were saying, 'Our voice needs to be taken in.'"

But since Bergoglio is from Argentina, it wasn't long before crucial questions were raised about his background and the role he played, or didn't play, during that country's Dirty War in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This was the time of "los desaparcidos" -- thousands of people who disappeared, killed by the military junta in a brutal campaign to wipe out leftist opposition to the government that had seized control in a coup. Students, workers, intellectuals and anyone perceived a threat to the dictatorship simply vanished. Including priests.

Much has been written about -- with often conflicting accounts -- of whether then-Cardinal Bergoglio was complicit with the military junta. One of the more serious allegations is that Bergoglio withdrew his support for two Jesuit priests who were then kidnapped and tortured by the junta. Bergoglio was not a supporter of the kind of work the priests were doing among the poor, which was part of the Liberation Theology Movement.

In an unusually fast move for the Vatican, just two days after electing the new pope, it rejected any suggestion that Francis had anything to do with aiding and abetting the military junta. But after years denying that the church had any involvement with the dictatorship, Cardinal Bergoglio testified in 2010 that he had met secretely with the former head of the military junta, Gen. Jorge Videla, to ask for the release of the priests.

According to reports in the New York Times, prosecutors called on Cardinal Bergoglio to testify about the junta's systematic kidnapping of children, a subject he was also accused of knowing about but failed to prevent.

But while human rights groups in Argentina claim that Bergoglio didn't do enough to confront the dictatorship, other activists such as Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel vigorously defends Bergoglio of any such allegations.

At 76, Pope Francis is seen as a reformer. He is a theological conservative who opposes abortion, gay marriage and the ordination of women. No surprise there.

A welcome surprise, though, would be that the Catholic Church truly change its ways and become transparent in a host of issues, such as why it allowed priests to continue to sexually molest children and at the same time failed to call police.

While the church has taken steps to address that, many of the faithful are praying Pope Francis can put an end to it.

Jose Gaspar is a reporter for "KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News" and a contributing columnist for The Californian. These are Gaspar's opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com.

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