The newly elected pontiff is from an area of the world with a flourishing Catholicism that will be relatable to many Southern Arizonans, local Catholic leaders said Wednesday.

Speaking by telephone from Baltimore where he is at a meeting with the national group Catholic Relief Services, Diocese of Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas said he had not previously heard that the former Argentine Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio was among those who might be named, but sees him as a "sign of unity" for the world's Catholics.

Kicanas, who has never met the Latin American pontiff, said the fact that the new Pope Francis is a Spanish speaker will give him an instant connection to many of the Tucson diocese's some 350,000 Catholics.

"This is a historic day for the church and for the world really," Kicanas said. "He's known as a very holy man. A man who is deeply in love with the Lord and understands what it means to serve, and certainly understands the Lord's call to his apostles that if they want to be great, they need to serve."

Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson Monsignor Raul Trevizo said he knew a few Latin American bishops were in contention for the exalted position, but didn't see one being chosen as a "great possibility" despite the fact half of the church's members are Latin American.

Father Jose Funes is an Argentine Jesuit priest and current head of the Vatican Observatory who lives half of the year in Tucson. He knew Pope Francis when Bergoglio was a bishop in Buenos Aires during the mid-1980s.

The new pontiff favors a popular religiosity common in Latin America that caters to the poorest by nurturing their faith with simple but effective spirituality like praying the rosary, devotion to the saints, use of sacramental items like holy water, and religious processions, he said.

"We can see the devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, to the saints," Funes said of many Catholics in Southern Arizona. "I think that this is a great asset of our people, and that this papal election will show it more."

Bergoglio is known for his low-key demeanor, his love for the poor and for catering both to their material and spiritual needs, Funes said.

While Bergoglio's selection is a "major historic event" given his country of origin, it was not wholly unexpected, said Karen Seat, director of the University of Arizona's religious studies program.

"I certainly think the election reflects the current reality of the Catholic Church," in that a large percentage of the church's members are in Latin America, Seat said. Francis appears to hold the traditional values of the church on such things as women being ordained, abortion and contraception, Seat said.

"I'm not sure he will take the church in any significantly different ways in terms of church doctrine," Seat said.

Indeed, Kicanas said that while his affinity with the poor might be considered liberal by some people, Pope Francis is expected to be extremely faithful in maintaining the church's teachings.

Pope Francis is the first pontiff to be a Jesuit, which is the world's largest religious order. Twenty-two Jesuit brothers and priests live in Arizona.

"We're very happy, this is good," said Father Sean Carroll, a Jesuit who is executive director of the Kino Border Initiative along the Arizona-Mexico border. The new pope's intelligence, love of the church and simple life are "great blessings" to Catholics worldwide, Carroll said.

The "charisma" of the Jesuit order is to be available to followers, Carroll said. "This is the ultimate act of availability."

About 40 worshippers heard the announcement of a new pope during a service at Tucson's St. Augustine Cathedral on Wednesday.

During his homily, Monsignor Al Schifano spoke of the tears he wept when he heard that a new pontiff had been selected. Clearly, he said, the Holy Spirit had spoken to the hearts of the 115 men chosen to pick God's newest representative on Earth.

Just moments later, a gasp was heard and applause erupted when the pope's name was revealed.

The gasp came from Sister Gladys Echenique, a native of Misiones, Argentina, who has met the new pope three times, even shaking his hand once.

"I see this as something great. It's bigger than what we think," Echenique said.

Echenique came to the United States 15 years ago. She's spent the last four years working in the Diocese of Tucson as the director of Hispanic ministry.

The fact the bishop chose the name Francis I came as no surprise to Echenique, who, like others, assumes it was chosen to honor St. Francis of Assisi, a wealthy man who chose to live in poverty after making a pilgrimage to Rome.

"He is a very simple man and very close to the people," Echenique said of the new pope. "Knowing him and coming from a Latin America background, I think he will focus on the poor, not only in Latin America but in other places."

Parishioner Christina Ruelas was surprised how fast the decision was made, but didn't place any special significance on where the new pope hails from.

"To me it doesn't matter as long as he's a good pope who will take care of our beliefs and our church," Ruelas said.

Hilda Fernandez was pleased at the speed with which the pope was chosen given the state of the world. "God chose, so he can't be wrong," Fernandez said. "God is going to guide him the right way."

Kicanas will be in Rome next week for a preplanned meeting as part of his duties as chairman of the board of Catholic Relief Services. He does not expect to be there in time for the new pope's installation, but says it will be a "great joy" to be at the Vatican so soon after the papal election.

Kicanas did not express any regret at not being part of the papal selection himself.

In 2010, Kicanas became the first sitting vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops not to be elected president of the conference. Instead, the conservative-leaning Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, was elected by fellow American bishops in a vote of 128-111 to the three-year term of president.

Two years later, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Dolan a cardinal, which meant he was part of the conclave that selected the new pope on Wednesday.

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Thomas C. Fox wrote in November 2010 that by rejecting Kicanas for president, the U.S. bishops "hurt a good man along the way" and "probably did in a career as well."

Kicanas was later appointed to his post at Catholic Relief Services - a job that puts him strongly in line with the new pope. Catholic Relief Services carries out the mission of U.S. Catholic bishops to assist the poor and vulnerable overseas.

"Being a person aware of people's struggles, especially of the poor, is a good model for us on the importance of growing in our spiritual lives," Kicanas said.

If you go

Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas will lead a service to pray for the future of Pope Francis at noon Friday at the downtown St. Augustine Cathedral.

Tucson reaction

Sister Gladys Echenique, director of Hispanic ministry for the Tucson diocese, gasped at the news. A native of Argentina, she has met the new pope three times. "I see this as something great. It's bigger than what we think," she said. Story, A14

Reporter Joseph Treviño contributed to this report. Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at or 573-4134. Twitter: @stephanieinnes