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New pope excites local Argentines

Carrie Click
Post Independent Contributor
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Pope Francis leads the Easter vigil service in St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican Saturday, March 30, 2013. Pope Francis is celebrating a trimmed back Easter Vigil service after having reached out to Muslims and women during a Holy Week in which he has begun to put his mark on the Catholic Church. Francis processed into a darkened and silent St. Peter's Basilica at the start of the Saturday service, which recalls the period between Christ's crucifixion on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter Sunday. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
AP | AP

Sandwiched at the southern tip of South America between Chile and the Atlantic Ocean sits the country of Argentina. Known for its European culture, the Patagonia region, its wine and beef, and for originating – with its Uruguayan neighbors – the tango, Argentina now has another distinction.

This Easter Sunday will be the first time a pope from Argentina – to say nothing of South America and the Americas in general – will lead worshippers at the Vatican in Catholic services that will reach a global audience.

That’s because on March 12, a group of 115 cardinals elected Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a cardinal and former archbishop of Buenos Aires, to the Catholic Church’s highest position.



Apparently, the decision is sitting well with Americans in the northern portion of the continent. According to Keating Holland, Cable News Network’s polling director, 88 percent of Catholics in the U.S. approve of the new 76-year-old pope. That’s in contrast with 60 percent who approved of his predecessor, Pope Benedict, according to an ABC News poll conducted in 2005.

According to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) World Factbook that tracks international trends, in Argentina, 92 percent of its citizens are Roman Catholic. However, less than 20 percent are actively practicing.



So how do the Argentine people feel about one of their countrymen becoming the papal leader of more than 1.2 billion Catholics around the world?

For a few who belong to a small contingent of Argentines living in and around Glenwood Springs, thoughts run from simply agreeing that Pope Francis is a humble man to immense pride that an archbishop from Argentina has become the head of the international Catholic Church.

“This pope is an amazing human being,” said Paula Valenti who moved to Los Angeles from her native Buenos Aires around 1998 – before arriving in Glenwood Springs three years ago. “My intuition tells me he is a very, very good person.”

Valenti, who works as a Zumba instructor and an interpreter, said her parents were practicing Catholics when she was growing up. She attended Catholic school, but she is not a practicing Catholic now.

“I’m a Buddhist,” she said. “After school, I started looking for something different.”

Still, she has positive feelings about Pope Francis.

“I saw on TV how very happy the people are in Argentina [about the pope’s selection],” she said. “I think it’s very good for the country. The main problem in Argentina is the government. It’s very bad. I hope this pope can teach a different way of living. I hope he can influence the government.”

Veronica Whitney, who now lives in Carbondale, was born in Argentina. She came to the States in 1995 to attend school, and became a U.S. citizen in 2007.

Although she was raised Catholic, she and her family did not attend church regularly, though she says they would occasionally attend holiday services. She said she wasn’t entirely surprised that the new pope is from South America.

“I had a hunch,” she said. “So many Catholics are from Latin America.”

Like Valenti, Whitney agrees that change is needed within the Argentine government and that possibly the pope can elevate people’s faith that better days are coming.

“The government is so corrupt and showy,” Whitney said. “This pope is the complete opposite. As the new spiritual leader, he can give the people new strength and hope. People are so tired of [Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner]. She does whatever she wants. The pope can remind people that God exists.”

Even though Pope Francis advocates for the poor, Whitney doesn’t feel that he will be able to directly affect Argentina’s poor, which, according to the CIA World Factbook, accounts for 30 percent of the population there.

“As a cardinal, he visited shanty towns and met with the poor directly,” she said. “Now, he’ll be able to [continue to] let people know he is praying for them.”

Sandra Ursino-Gould, who lives in Glenwood Springs with her husband, Britt Gould, came to the United States from Argentina in 1987 when she was 20. She became a U.S. citizen in 2001.

“I’ve lived here longer than I lived there,” she said, noting that her two children, Kelsie and Ryan Games, with her former husband Adolfo Games, DVM, were born in the States. Kelsie is a graphic designer and recently had a baby, and Ryan is an elite pilot in the U.S. Air Force. Ursino-Gould also has two stepdaughters, Emma and Brittany Gould.

Raised in Mar del Plata (“It is our Las Vegas,” she said, smiling, about her hometown), she studied ballet and belly dancing, attributing the Colombian superstar Shakira with popularizing belly dancing in Latin America. She said she is “excited” that the new pope is from Argentina.

“Oh my God,” she said in response to Pope Francis’ appointment. “[My husband] Britt said to me that he’s not even Catholic and he’s excited.”

Although Ursino-Gould was raised Catholic, she is not a practicing Catholic now.

“When I was growing up in Argentina, I went to church every Sunday, and I attended a Catholic girls’ school with nuns,” she said. “It seems like there’s a lot of peer pressure there to be Catholic. It’s like here with skiing. Here, everyone skis, so I learned to ski, too. There, it’s something like 98 percent of the population is Catholic, I believe, so there is pressure to be Catholic, too.”

Still, whether practicing or not, part of the new pope’s appeal seems to be his modest demeanor and his desire to be considered an ordinary man, albeit in an extraordinary role.

“This pope is very different,” said Ursino-Gould. “He’s very humble. He doesn’t like displays of wealth. I even heard that he asked for his simple black shoes that were in his apartment in Buenos Aires. When he lived in Buenos Aires, he cooked and cleaned for himself. He rode the bus system and the subway. He wants to be with the people, and he insists on riding in an open car. I heard his security people at least wanted him to wear a [bullet-proof] vest but he wouldn’t do it. He wants to touch the people.”

Just because the majority of Argentines do not attend church on a regular basis, Ursino-Gould still equates Pope Francis’ rise to worldwide recognition with a famous athlete born in Argentina: Spanish soccer star Lionel Messi.

“Oh yes, the pope is huge, he’s enormous, just like Messi,” she said. “It’s huge he was chosen. It’s been something like 600 years since a pope has been selected from outside Europe, and never from the Americas.”

Whitney agreed that in Argentina, Pope Francis is as popular as Lionel Messi – and, actually, even more so.

“People are very excited,” Whitney said. “He’s bigger than Messi. The mayor [of Buenos Aires] has put up a big billboard of the pope in downtown Buenos Aires. Thousands of people waited in the streets overnight to celebrate the pope’s inauguration together [in Buenos Aires on March 19].”

Claudio Gottardo is also from Argentina, though he comes from the Andes Mountains in the Patagonia region near the Chilean border.

“I come from the skiing world,” said Gottardo, who competed as a speed skier in the Winter Olympics and World Cup circuit during the ’90s. His home mountain was Bariloche, Aspen’s sister city.

Gottardo, who is not religious, said as a child he watched as one of his aunts, who was a devout Catholic, give everything she had to the church.

“I thought it was very wrong,” he said of the church accepting his aunt’s offerings. “My family was against it.”

After growing up in Argentina, Gottardo lived in Europe for five years. He got a job in French Alps and traveled extensively. Eventually, he ended up competing in speed skiing in the U.S., around the time that he was ready to shift out of competitive sports and develop a new career.

“The decision was to either stay here and work or go back to my country,” he said.

Gottardo decided to stay in the Roaring Fork Valley. Today he owns and operates Custom Marble of Aspen, a stone fabrication shop in Carbondale.

“I’m a slave to my business,” he said with a smile.

He said travel and exposure to different cultures contributed to his outlook on religion.

“I was exposed to many cosmopolitan experiences,” he said. “I believe in God, but I don’t believe in institutions [such as Catholicism].”

And an Argentine pope isn’t changing Gottardo’s mind.

“I’m not very familiar with him,” he said of Pope Francis, “but I do believe he’s a humble man. There are so many politics wrapped up with Catholicism, I don’t know how much power he can have. We’ll see what he can do.”


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