In local faithful community, excitement

MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chris Wurster holds his smartphone for fellow workers Wednesday at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia headquarters as they watch a streaming video of Pope Francis being announced.
MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Chris Wurster holds his smartphone for fellow workers Wednesday at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia headquarters as they watch a streaming video of Pope Francis being announced.
Posted: March 15, 2013

AN OCEAN AWAY from the symbolic white smoke and the College of Cardinals in Rome, a sense of newfound hope and excitement permeated the Catholic community across Philadelphia on Wednesday, as the faithful embraced Pope Francis - a Holy Father of firsts - as their new leader.

In the dawning moments of the papacy of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, 76, local Catholics imagined the bright future of a church led by the first Latin American pope and the first leader from the Jesuit order of priests.

In North Philadelphia, at St. Veronica's Church on 6th Street near Tioga, Father David Vidal called the new pontiff "a wonderful choice . . . not just for the church, but for everyone."

Vidal, who leads Spanish Masses at St. Veronica's, said the selection of the first Latin American pope marks a pivotal moment for Latin American Catholics.

"I am so very glad," said Vidal, a native of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Bergoglio was archbishop. "It is wonderful news for the whole church."

Some parishioners said they were looking ahead to a new chapter.

The church "needs some fresh views," Jane Benner said as she left St. John the Evangelist Church in Center City.

"We were hoping for one from America, but we'll take one from South America," added Mary Bambery, 79, laughing.

The pair, neighbors from Cheltenham, said they're glad to see a pope with a different background. The papacy has been dominated by European leaders for more than 1,200 years.

Benner, 68, said she hopes Francis will find new ways to draw in youth.

"We lost a lot of young people in the Catholic Church," Benner said. "I'm hoping his new ideas will bring them back."

Francis takes the reins of a religion with 1.2 billion followers worldwide at a time when the church has been mired in economic trouble and scandals of sexual abuse.

Father C. Kevin Gillespie, president of Jesuit-run St. Joseph's University in Wynnefield, said the faithful will be eager to see how the new pope handles decisions "around tough choices in Rome."

"I would use the word 'curiosity,' " Gillespie said. "How does the church take this new leader and help him to answer tough questions?"

Because of the Jesuit ideal of putting church and community ahead of personal ambition, other Jesuits here said they were stunned to see a member of their order selected as pope.

"I'm exceedingly surprised. . . . It's part of our identity not to want to get ahead," said Father Joseph Feeney, who teaches English at St. Joseph's.

Father Dennis Linehan, of Old St. Joseph's Church in Society Hill, had breakfast with the new pope in the 1980s in Germany. Linehan described him as nice, humble and funny. "It's incredible," he said. "[It's] the last thing anyone would have expected."

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said he was surprised at the selection of Francis for a different reason.

"I was surprised not because of his quality, but because of his age. I think people were looking for someone younger," Chaput said. "I think that it's obvious the cardinals didn't think that was a particularly relevant issue because of his personal energy and ability."

Chaput met the new Holy Father in 1997 at Rome's Synod for America, where the two became friendly. Francis once gave him a picture of the Blessed Mary, which Chaput keeps on his desk.

"I've got a great personal respect for him. He's a very good man, a very kind man, actually a very holy guy, so I'm really delighted," he said, also calling Pope Francis a "gentle soul" who cares about the poor.

The archbishop, who expects to travel to Rome in June, said he plans to invite Francis to the World Meeting of Families, which will be held in Philadelphia in 2015. It will be the first time the conference, which is held every four years, will take place in the United States.

Gillespie said he is hopeful that Pope Francis' humble background and Jesuit roots will mean a commitment to social justice and uplifting the poor.

A core spiritual mission of the Jesuits, he said, is to "seek to find God in all things."

"Pope Francis is someone who has lived that, particularly to the marginalized and the poor," said Gillespie, a Jesuit priest since 1986. "He'll give a voice to those who are voiceless. He'll help those who are suffering and offer hope."

For Camilo Ramos, 22, a student from the Jesuit Universidad Alberto Hurtado in Santiago, Chile, who came to Philadelphia to spend a semester at St. Joe's, the new pope hits close to home - literally and spiritually.

"Since I'm from South America, it's shocking that the country next to mine has the new pope," said Ramos, an education major. "It's thrilling that he's a Jesuit."

Ramos and a handful of other students gathered in Gillespie's office Wednesday afternoon following the announcement, as the students excitedly read about the new pope on their iPhones and talked with each other about what a Jesuit's papacy means for them.

"I've been just overall elated all afternoon," said Jennifer Cush, 22, a French and education senior. "To be able to have a special connection with the pope, that's special for us."

In Buenos Aires, American college student Colin Morse found himself at the center of the jubilation following the crowning of the world's first Argentinian pope.

"The celebration is in Plaza de Mayo here, and it will go on all night," Morse, a University of South Carolina student studying abroad, told the Daily News. "Everyone is very proud."

At the Philadelphia Archdiocese's Center City headquarters, some were surprised at the College of Cardinals' speedy selection of Francis as pope.

"It's just fantastic," said Monsignor Arthur Rodgers of the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul. "The cardinals must've found someone who came to the floor quickly. The Holy Spirit was pushing someone out there."

- Staff writers Jad Sleiman and Valerie Russ contributed to this report.

On Twitter: @morganzalot


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