With the historic election of the world’s first Latin American pope Wednesday, local parishioners Jose Mayen and Rhina Medina struggled to explain just what the election means to them.

“He is one of us,” Medina said.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina chose the name Pope Francis. The first Jesuit priest to lead the church’s 1.2 billion faithful, Francis shyly waved to the tens of thousands who turned out despite frigid rain in St. Peter’s Square. The 76-year-old appeared more than an hour after white smoke was released from the Sistine Chapel chimney.

Francis, the first non-European leader of the church in more than 1,200 years, is widely known as a humble man and a champion of the poor. He led an austere life in Buenos Aires, where he declined a limousine and rode the bus instead.

The Most Rev. Robert E. Guglielmone, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Charleston, expressed delight at Francis’ selection.

“It means, first of all, that the cardinals recognize the reality of the situation,” Guglielmone said. “Almost half of the world’s population of Catholics come from Latin America.”

Though considered a traditionalist with strong views when it comes to church theology, Francis also is a pastoral man attuned to the changing dynamics of Catholicism in Latin America, said Guglielmone, who leads South Carolina’s nearly 200,000 Catholics.

Bergoglio’s Latin American roots also drew enthusiastic praise from local parishioners.

“It is a blessing,” said Medina, the diocese’s associate director of Hispanic ministry to youth and young adults. “We feel we will have a lot of support.”

Mayen, who grew up in Guatemala, now worships at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Goose Creek, home to a vibrant Hispanic ministry and a Spanish Mass that draws up to 800 people on Sundays.

“There is no question the Holy Spirit was involved in this election,” Mayen said. “I thank God he was chosen. I have heard that he is a very humble, simple priest, just what we are looking for.”

He predicted that Pope Francis will reach out more to Hispanic communities, to attract desperately needed priests and also to gain and retain parishioners. That is critical, Mayen said, because Latin American Catholics have been flocking in recent years to evangelical and Pentecostal groups instead.

“This will have a very big impact,” Mayen said. “Some people might be interested in coming back, and it definitely will put more energy into those of us who are bringing people to Christ.”

Born to Italian immigrant parents, Francis could inspire much-needed unity among the entire worldwide church body even beyond Latin America. His lack of insider status, and his request that the whole world pray for him during his journey as pope, impressed Clydie de Brux, a parishioner at Stella Maris Roman Catholic Church on Sullivan’s Island.

“Having not been one of the ‘chosen’ few, he will assume his role without prejudices or opinions. I have complete faith and confidence in his ability to guide and safeguard the church,” de Brux said.

That lack of insider status also encouraged Marcus Cox, a Citadel history professor and parishioner at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Charleston. “He might bring a fresh perspective. I think it’s terrific.”

Unity could be critical as Francis faces healing deep wounds to the church’s moral authority. Among the varied causes are ongoing child sex-abuse scandals, power struggles over the Vatican bank and calls for reforming the curia, a body that assists the pope in governing the church.

One recent study found that American Catholics consider the child sex-abuse scandal to be the most important issue facing the church today.

Louise Doire, religious studies professor at the College of Charleston, was teaching about the history of women in the church Wednesday afternoon when a student yelled out, “We have a pope!”

While she wants to learn more about him, Doire questioned Francis’ more traditional theology. For instance, he fiercely opposed Argentina’s decision to legalize gay marriage in 2010.

“I don’t think this College of Cardinals would elect someone radically on the other side of their theology,” Doire said, referring to conservatives who have dominated the leadership.

The new pope’s selection of the name Francis left some uncertainty over whether he was nodding to St. Francis of Assisi, known for his devotion to the poor and embrace of poverty, or St. Francis Xavier, a founder of the Jesuit order known for its scholarship and outreach.

If the 266th pope chose his name after St. Francis of Assisi, “that can only be good,” Doire said. After all, if he chose to be named after St. Francis of Assisi, combined with his reputation for championing the poor, Pope Francis could rejuvenate the Catholic Church’s commitment to social ministry such as aiding the poor.

“The stories I have heard about Cardinal Bergoglio so far convey a strong sense of humility and piety,” said John Synovec, a Citadel graduate student and parishioner at St. Mary of the Annunciation.

A common theme of service could unite Catholics worldwide, even as they contend with theological differences over gay marriage, abortion, contraception and other social issues.

“Those issues are important to the church, but they also divide us as a group,” Cox said. “I am looking for unity around things we can agree upon. It would be really great to refocus the church’s attention and galvanize people.”

Guglielmone agreed that Francis will be a unifying figure.

“John Paul energized not only Poland but the whole Eastern European bloc,” Guglielmone observed. Perhaps Pope Francis I can do the same in his part of the world.

Adam Parker contributed to this report. Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.