Spanish-speaking Catholics celebrated across the region Wednesday as they came to terms with the fact that Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina had been selected as the first Latin American pontiff.

Bergoglio, 76, is the first non-European pope, succeeding Benedict XVI as leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. He took the papal name Francis.

And as the leader of such a vast flock, he brings global attention to Argentina – something that wasn’t lost on the local immigrant community, even those who aren’t part of the church.

Father Dennis Marrell of St. Philip the Apostle Catholic Church in Pasadena said about half of the roughly 4,000 families who attend the church are of Latino heritage, including more than 500 people who attend a weekly Spanish-language Mass.
 
“Several of them have already expressed their delight to me that someone who shares their background and has shown such concern for the poor has been chosen. All Catholics feel a special affinity with the pope, but this makes him feel much closer,” Marrell said.

Speaking in Spanish, Rene Vildoza -- owner of the Argentinian restaurant El Morfi Grill in downtown Glendale -- said that while he is not a Catholic, it’s “a point of pride for the people to have a South American, especially a Latino, in this position.”

Referring to his family back in Argentina: “They are happy with it. I am happy for the people, too."

PHOTOS: Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio elected pope

The significance of the selection of Pope Francis I also was not lost on Marcelo Sala, owner of 1810 Argentinean Restaurant in Pasadena.

Originally from Buenos Aires, Sala, 50, said he wasn’t a devout Catholic, so to him, “personally, it’s not a big deal.”

But to have the new pope hail from his native country, “It’s definitely a good thing because people will know more about Argentina."

Full L.A. Times coverage: Election of a pope

Carlos Hirtz, 59, who helps run his son’s Argentinian restaurant, World Empanadas, in Burbank, said that while he’s not religious, he was raised attending Catholic schools in Argentina and is happy for his home country.

“It’s not going to change my life, but I’m happy for him, I’m happy for Argentina,” Hirtz said.

He hopes that with an Argentinian pope, more money will be sent from the Vatican to Argentina to build or support local churches.

“If he helps them, that’s good,” Hirtz said.

He’d also like to see changes in the Catholic church.

“I hope this guy can be in the 20th Century, not with 1800’s ideals that are still with the Catholic church,” Hirtz said. “They have to be more open with the rest of the world.”

Meanwhile, he said, customers throughout the day expressed their congratulations.

“I said, ‘Oh, thank you, but you need to congratulate the pope, not me.’"

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-- Jason Wells, Joe Piasecki, Daniel Siegal and Alene Tchekmedyian, Times Community News