Today's election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio to the papacy is notable for two big reasons: he's the first non-European, and the first ordained member of the Society of Jesus, to occupy the highest seat of the Roman Catholic Church, both of which upend millennia of precedent. While the fact that Bergoglio is a Jesuit is, in itself, a pretty huge deal — the order has long stood at the periphery of the Catholic Church's hierarchy — his being born in Argentina is a far greater one. While Catholicism has claimed South America to be under its domain officially since 1493, no South American has ascended to the papacy before today.
1493 was the year that Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus reached the continent on a Church-endorsed exploration of the New World. As the Catholic World noted in 1893, "Where American civilization was first planted by Columbus, in 1493, the Catholic Church reared its first altar on this soil four hundred years ago. ... Christianity and civilization were born in the same cradle and at the same moment, in the western hemisphere." A papal bull inssued in May of that year by Pope Alexander VI commanded: "Among other works well pleasing to the Divine Majesty and cherished of our heart, this assuredly ranks highest, that in our times especially the Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself."
An eventual member of the sprawling Spanish Empire, Pope Francis' native Argentina gained independence from Spain in 1810, but remained largely Catholic. As pointed out by many today, the majority of Argentinians continue to identify as Catholic, however only 20 percent identify as practicing.