For the 1,200 families of Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul, the naming of an Argentine pope is a powerful sign.

"It's very reassuring that change will take place, and hopefully the recognition of the Spanish-speaking world and Spanish-speaking Catholics is now upgraded in a sense of the viability and the spirituality of the faith," said the Rev. Kevin Kenney, pastor of Our Lady, one of the largest predominantly Spanish-speaking parishes in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The election of a South American Jesuit, whose name reflects St. Francis of Assisi, has other Minnesota faithful contemplating what changes he may bring to the papacy — and, in time, to the churches they attend.

For University of St. Thomas student Paul Juhasz — who cheered alongside thousands of other Catholics in St. Peter's Square on Wednesday as he watched white smoke signal the selection of the new pope — he's hopeful Francis will continue on a similar leadership course as retired Pope Benedict XVI and "bring new vigor to the church's unchanging message of happiness."

"I think it would be a misunderstanding to expect the holy father to re-invent Catholicism," Juhasz said in a phone interview. "So in that sense, I don't expect the new holy father to change any doctrine."

Back in Minnesota, Cathy Osgood viewed the pope's selection as an opportunity for change: to begin a discussion about women's ordination, married priests and birth control. "I think the new pope needs to be someone who has some sense of what's going on in the real world," said Osgood, a longtime member of the liberal-leaning St. Joan of Arc parish in Minneapolis."They're [church leadership] just not dealing with the issues that concern a lot of people."

While the Catholic Church remains the largest denomination nationally and in Minnesota — with close to 1.1 million followers — its membership has declined since 2000. Kenney said many Spanish-speaking Catholics have moved to evangelical faiths in recent years. He is hopeful the new pope may help reverse that trend.

Celebration at cathedral

Nearly 200 attended a mass celebrating the election of the new pope led by Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché at the Cathedral of St. Paul on Wednesday evening.

Archbishop John Nienstedt expressed joy in a released statement. "Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ for the blessing of our Pope Francis! To our Holy Father Pope Francis, I offer my deep fraternal affection and I renew my pledge of obedience. May our prayers be joined today and in the coming days for our new Holy Father."

Pope Francis is also the first Jesuit elected to the papacy, a significant event for Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Minneapolis — the only Jesuit school in the archdiocese, which has nearly 300 students. Principal Jeb Myers says he expects the new pope will make the church "inviting and that as a community we manifest the teachings Jesus brought to us all."

"The majority of our students come from Latin America," Myers said. "So our students are really excited to have a pope that speaks their language and looks like them. Which is a very positive thing. It's a great thing."

Catholics throughout Minnesota have kept a close eye on the papal election process, including Monique Venne, who led a small group protesting the absence of women in the papal election near the Cathedral of St. Paul on Tuesday. Along with about some 70 women in the United States, Venne considers herself an ordained Roman Catholic priest and is part of the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

"We know that the cardinals are concerned about the state of the church, but they are not necessarily concerned about the problems that the laity are worried about," Venne said in an e-mailed statement. "For one, parishes are closing and merging all over the state. ... But the church would have plenty of priests if the Vatican would accept all people who believe they have a vocation to priestly ministry, including married men and all women."

From Rome to Minnesota

Even though the pope can seem distant, he can have significant impact at the local level, said Chad Pecknold, theology professor at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., an expert on the papacy.

For example, Pope Benedict told Minnesota bishops visiting in Rome last March that the preservation of marriage between a man and woman must be a top priority. Minnesota bishops were among the fiercest supporters of a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that voters rejected in November. While conservative-leaning Catholics applauded the effort, liberal-minded Catholics heavily criticized the church's campaign.

Pecknold said the new pope would do well not to ignore divisions in the United States and other parts of the Western church over issues like gay marriage, women's ordination and married priests.

"The challenge will be having a conversation about the truth about things," Pecknold said. "I think the question for the church now — especially in this country but all around the world — is to have the conversation to be about whether or not the church is right about something."

Rose French • 612-673-4352