BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Rubén Balcas, a thin construction worker with dark skin, still can’t believe that he has been in the same church as Pope Francis I, who is being inaugurated today in Vatican City.
When Balcas saw former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio waving on TV last week as the first pope from the Americas, he realized it was the same man who had confirmed his niece in Villa 1-11-14, a slum where he used to live in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital.
Cement and lime linger on Balcas’ clothing. He tips forward from the weight of the tools in his backpack as he recounts the announcement of the new pope.
“I was working in the house of a woman Wednesday, the 13th,” he says. “I was tearing down a wall when I heard the owner give a shout.”
He went to see what the commotion was about.
“‘The new pope is Argentine!’” he says she exclaimed. “So I looked at the television, and what a surprise! He was that priest who was bishop, or something like that, the one who was at my niece’s celebration in the church of the slum where I lived before.”
He says it was too unbelievable to share with his employer.
“My employer was happy, and I was too,” he says. “But I didn’t tell her that I knew him because she wasn’t going to believe me.”
Balcas lowers his gaze under the red brim of his hat.
“He said that it was necessary to pray a lot,” Balcas says, recounting the new Pope's words on TV. “That’s why, when I left on the train, I was praying until my house. And when I arrived, I told Esperanza, my wife, and she called our niece and told her, ‘The father who gave you confirmation is now pope.’ We were all very happy.”
Tens of thousands of people gathered before dawn today in Buenos Aires to watch the inauguration of their fellow Argentine as Pope Francis I. Bergoglio’s selection has excited Catholic and non-Catholic citizens alike, who say they feel as if they are joining him in making history as the first pope from the Americas. His humble first public gestures inspire hope in disillusioned Catholics here who say they want him to lead the faith in a new direction. Some also look to the new pope to use his position to influence political leaders in Latin America, a predominantly Catholic region.
Pope Francis I is best known for his engagement with residents of the slums of Buenos Aires. Vatican officials have denied allegations of his involvement in the disappearance of two priests among the 30,000 people who went missing during Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983.
Tens of thousands of Argentines gathered last night in Plaza de Mayo, home to Catedral Primada de Buenos Aires, the central church of the archdiocese, to participate in a vigil in anticipation of today’s inauguration. The archbishop of Buenos Aires, who led the vigil, served under Bergoglio