Area Catholics rejoice for new pope

Maria Travaglio (right) gathered with others in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia to watch the announcement. (Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman / Staff)
Maria Travaglio (right) gathered with others in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia to watch the announcement. (Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman / Staff)
Posted: March 14, 2013

Maria Travaglio wept with joy when news came that a Latino had been chosen as pope.

"It's about time," said the Philadelphia Archdiocese Catholic Social Services worker, who born and raised in Argentina. "I can't believe it. Wow."

Travaglio was crying tears of happiness in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, where she and others gathered to watch the announcement.

Across the Philadelphia region, Catholics rejoiced and non-Catholics took notice, the world seeming to stop for a moment for the selection of a new pope: Pope Francis, the former Cardinal Bergoglio.

Pope Francis is the first ever from the Americas, a man described as an austere Jesuit intellectual who modernized Argentina's conservative church.

"He is a wonderful choice," said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who called the new pope "a man from the new heartland of the global Church; a priest of extraordinary intellectual and cultural strengths; a man deeply engaged in the issues of contemporary life and able to speak to the modern heart; open to the new realities the Church faces; and rooted in a deep love of Jesus Christ."

Chaput said he first met the new Holy Father at Rome's 1997 Synod for America. A gift from him, a portrait of Mary, the mother of Jesus, sits on Chaput's desk.

"May God grant him courage and joy, and sustain him with his divine presence," Chaput said. "And may Catholics in Philadelphia and around the world lift him up with our prayers."

Michael Moreland, a vice dean of Villanova Law School who closely followed the papal election process, said Pope Francis is extremely intelligent, highly trained - and a big surprise, both because of his age and his location.

"It would have been less surprising had he been elected in 2005," said Moreland, a lifelong Catholic who has taught on the topic of Catholic social thought. "He was certainly among the names floated last time, and was still thought to be potentially among the names for this conclave. ... Most people had thought perhaps the college would look to someone younger.

At 76, the new pope is two years younger than when Pope Benedict was elected at 78. Benedict, 85, resigned in February, citing his advanced age.

"They surprised us," Moreland said. "This has happened before in the church's history, when they pick someone who is not likely to be in office for a long time."

Still, he said, Pope Francis' selection is historic in that he is the first Jesuit elected pope, is not a European, and comes from an area where the church has been growing.

Earlier today, white smoke poured from the roof of the Sistine Chapel, signaling that 115 cardinals had chosen a new pope. The decision came after only five ballots.

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires was the runner-up to Benedict in the 2005 conclave, said to have received 40 votes on the third ballot, just before Benedict got the two-thirds needed on the fourth ballot.

The new leader of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics faces crises on multiple fronts, including a leak of papal documents that uncovered corruption. In the U.S., the church has been riven by shifting beliefs on central teachings and damaged by the clergy sex-abuse scandal.

Few were talking about those problems today.

"A tremendous amount of joy," said Rev. Monsignor Hugh Shields, pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Philadelphia, which has a large Hispanic membership and the motto, "Serving the Immigrant and the Stranger in South Philadelphia."

Shields said the church's 40-percent Latino membership will identify closely with the new pope, whose humility and commitment to the poor shone through during his brief remarks on the balcony in St. Peter's Square. He expects a larger-than-usual turnout at St. Thomas' Spanish Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

"He's special because he's Latino," said Patricia Alegria, 32, who came to St. William on Rising Sun Avenue at Devereaux Street to have two sons, Matthew, 6, and Nicholas, 2, blessed with holy water for the occasion.

Unfortunately, St. William was closed. But that didn't dent her enthusiasm. "He's a human being. He's one of us."

Mayor Nutter released a statement saying he hopes Pope Francis will come to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families, already announced for 2015. It's been expected that the next pope would attend.

"I look forward to his worldwide leadership, in not only bringing a message of service and faith to Catholics around the world but to every person, as we seek peace and express our hopes for the future," Nutter said.

Inside Villanova University's campus ministry center, a small group gathered to watch Pope Francis address the crowd in St. Peter's Square.

"Oh, he's so cute!" said Danielle Wilson, a sophomore majoring in psychology.

The room fell silent as he began to speak.

"It's cool - I hoped this would happen," said Jessica Flynn, a sophomore majoring in sociology who works at the center. "He'll bring in an interesting cultural perspective."

Donald Giannella, the associate director of Campus Ministry, said he was optimistic about Francis' potential as pope but said he will face challenges.

"I hope a new pope from a new place with a new name will be not just a symbol of change, but a lightning rod for it," he said.

Across Villanova's campus, students said they had been following the progress of the papal election. Pili Iturriaga, a senior economics major from Mexico City, said Pope Francis' selection resonated because of her own heritage.

"It's refreshing - it's what the church needs. I think that reaching out to young people would be good."

Anna Austin, a sophomore from DuBois, Iowa, said she hopes Francis "does a better job of interpreting traditions in a modern way."

Inside the Augustinian monastery that sits on Villanova's campus, Fr. Gary McCloskey, the monastery's prior, said he was struck by Francis' simple lifestyle and emphasis on the poor during his time as archbishop of Buenos Aires.

Similar expressions came from across the Delaware River.

"This man is almost perfect," said Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan, noting that 40 percent of the world's Catholics are from Latin America. "He has feet in both cultures."

Sullivan believes Pope Francis will have special meaning to Camden residents. "One of the most popular names [for] confirmation is Francis," Sullivan said, adding that six Camden children recently were confirmed with that name.

Jud Weiksnar, pastor at St. Anthony Padua Church in Cramer Hill, which serves a predominantly Hispanic and immigrant population, said the new pope has a special understanding of immigrants because of his background. "So many of our parishioners, their parents were immigrants, so they might feel a special connection," Weiksnar said.

According to a 2011 Pew Hispanic Center report, about 242,000 Hispanics living in the U.S. traced their roots to Argentina, placing it behind countries like Mexico (33,000,000), Puerto Rico (about 5 million) and Cuba (nearly 2 million).

Pew says Argentina was home to about 31 million Catholics in 2010, ranking it 11th in the world in Catholic population. Brazil was first, with more than 133 million.

"He definitely brings hope," said Robert Schmid, 26, a fourth-year seminary student at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Lower Merion Township. "It's a very exciting time."

At St. Joseph's University, President Father Gillespie said the news sparked wide excitement on the campus of the Jesuit school.

"This gives us Jesuits a model to aspire to," he said. "We have someone who represents our ideal."

Gillespie, a Jesuit, said he had never met Pope Francis but believed his background - born to Italian parents but living most of his life in Argentina - would make him a force for global unity. He will confront the scandals and troubles with a new perspective, he said.

Francis is known as a strong proponent of reaching out to the poor, as well as to those suffering from AIDS, Gillespie said. The fact that he uses the name Francis - symbolizing austerity and humility - shows the importance he places on a simple but profound life.

"He is a symbol of hope for the marginalized," Gillespie said. "In many ways, what we are witnessing today is an inspiration for us. This pope is going to bring a true vision of the 21st Century."

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 610-313-8205,, or on Twitter @JeffGammage

Contributing to this story were staff writers David O'Reilly, Carolyn Davis, Claudia Vargas, Allison Steele, Martha Woodall, Robert Moran and Chris Palmer.

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