BUENOS AIRES — Hundreds of spectators stood through the chilly night in the city's Plaza de Mayo, the iconic park in front of the Catholic cathedral and government palace, to watch a live Vatican transmission of the ascension of the Argentine pope, Francis. The mass finally began shortly after 5 a.m., to a roar of cheers and chanting in unison: ‘Argentina! Argentina!'
People wrapped themselves in the yellow and white Vatican flags being hawked alongside Francis buttons, calendars, key chains and posters.
While Francis circled St. Peter's Square in the white pope-mobile, two students of the Catholic University, Federico Chaves and Jonathan Tiberio, both 26, swapped anecdotes about the former Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio, an advisor at their campus, who set up a program at the university for students to teach English and computer classes as volunteers in some of the city's poorest slums.
"We're anticipating change at the Vatican because of what he did in Argentina. He worked with everyone, atheists, homosexuals....He's shown a commitment to bring the church closer to the people, to assimilate it into life," said Chaves, an economics student.
Tiberio pointed to the then-cardinal's support for Argentina's legalization in 2002 of civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, "showing an openness" that stood in stark contrast to the hardline position taken up by Argentina's conservative Catholic majority.
Indeed, Francis represented a more liberal vein in Argentina's church, appearing to respond to a leftward shift in Argentina in a bid to staunch the bleeding of his flock.
Argentina's laws ensuring lesbian, gay and transgender people's right to marriage -- which it extends to non-resident foreigners -- and adoption are among the most liberal in the world. Nearly three years since the passage of the law in July 2010, more than 1,000 gay and lesbian couples have tied the knot in Argentina, according to Esteban Paulón, president of the Argentina LGBT Federation.
Meanwhile, the church's slow decline has continued. According to the Pew Forum, 76.8 percent of Argentina's population is at least nominally Catholic, but only 33 percent of Catholics interviewed in Argentina in 2010 cited religion as very important in their lives, down from 40 percent in 2002, and only 19 percent said they regularly attended mass.
But it may be the church's ambiguous stance during Argentina's last dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983, that has done the most to damage the institution's credibility.
Bergoglio, who was also the head of the church's Argentine Jesuit order, has been harshly criticized for his role during this period, when as estimated 30,000 people were disappeared or killed. In continuing trials, members of the church have even been convicted for human rights crimes.