BY MARY WICOFF
Local Roman Catholics call the election of Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina — now Pope Francis I — “extraordinary” and “exciting.”
Students at Schlarman Academy have been following the process this week, and recognize the history that’s being made — both with the election of the first pope from the Americas and the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the first time a pope has resigned in six centuries.
Students and adults also are taken with the pope’s simplicity and humility.
“It’s cool that he’s just a simple guy,” said Andrew Kelley, a senior at Schlarman.
Katie Bateman, also a senior, said, “He seems personable. He has a lot of personality.”
She also noted the new pope is the first to call himself Francis, a reference to St. Francis of Assisi, a 13th-century Italian who lived a life of poverty, and St. Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuit order.
Both teens mentioned the dove or seagull that was sitting on the Sistine Chapel smokestack Wednesday, when the white smoke appeared, indicating the cardinals had chosen a successor to Pope Benedict.
That was a foreshadowing of the new pope calling himself Francis, Bateman said, as St. Francis of Assisi is often shown with a bird on his hand.
The dove also represents the Holy Spirit, Kelley added, and that shows the spirit was present. “That was pretty cool — all the little hidden meanings,” he said.
Being in a Catholic school, the students said they were privileged to be able to watch some of the proceedings on television and the computer this week — and to watch history being made.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Bateman said.
Religion teachers Francee Davis and Patricia Prall helped the students understand the significance of this week’s events.
The Rev. Patrick O’Neal, chaplain at Schlarman, also is impressed with the new leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, and the Rev. John Flattery with Holy Family Catholic Church called his election “extraordinary.”
O’Neal said, “Already, I am very impressed with him. He has a true pastor’s heart — he knows what it is to serve.”
O’Neal, who’s also pastor at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hoopeston, said, “He’s going to be a great gift.”
The priest said he was impressed from the beginning when Francis asked the crowd to bless him, and he bowed in silence. “I’ve never seen that before,” he said.
The church will see a new emphasis on simplicity and people will be called upon to serve the poor and marginalized — something Francis already does in actions, not just words, O’Neal said.
Pope Francis also is the first Jesuit to become pope; the order is known for its work in education and intellectual research. O’Neal noted the new pope is extremely intelligent and trained as a chemist.
That should help him have dialogues with atheists, who base their arguments on science. However, science and faith don’t contradict each other, O’Neal said, and the pope will be able to reach out to atheists and agnostics.
“I have a lot of hope for this man,” he said. “He’s a man of deep spirituality.”
The pope’s biggest challenge will be reform of the Roman Curia, the central governing body of the church, in an effort to make it more efficient and transparent. “That will help restore trust in the leadership of the church,” he said. “We have to change our own house in order to be credible.”
Flattery called the election “an extraordinary choice.” Like others, he’s impressed with the pope’s habits of riding a bus instead of taking a limousine, asking people to pray for him, paying his own hotel bill and meeting with cardinals on their own level, rather than sitting in an elevated chair.
Also, he turned down the red velvet cape that Benedict wore when he was presented to the world for the first time in 2005, choosing the simple white cassock of the papacy instead.
His first remarks to the people were simple: “Brothers and sisters, good evening.”
“Those little gestures show he’s trying to bring the papacy closer to the people,” Flattery said.
On Thursday, Francis placed a bouquet of flowers on the altar at the St. Mary Major basilica, the oldest church in Rome, during an unannounced visit, and at his first Mass, he gave the homily in Italian rather than Latin — again, signs that he’s breaking with tradition.
Being a Jesuit is an interesting historical twist, too. Flattery noted that, about 1773, Pope Clement XIV, a Franciscan, suppressed the Jesuits, and the order wasn’t restored until 1815.
Francis reportedly was the runner-up in 2005, when Pope Benedict was elected.