In Phila. region, reacting with joy and pride

Chris Wurster holds a phone for coworkers at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia offices after a large-screen feed failed.
Chris Wurster holds a phone for coworkers at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia offices after a large-screen feed failed. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 15, 2013

Soon his face will be an icon known around the world.

But when he stepped out onto the balcony above St. Peter's Square on Wednesday, the Argentine cleric born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, was a blank slate to most of the world's Catholics.

So they studied him for clues, hanging on his first words, his ethnicity, his gestures - even his clothing - for signs of the world leader he might become.

"My initial reaction was that he was not clad in any elaborate vestments," said the Rev. Kevin Gallagher, vocations director for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

His plain white cassock "made a statement of obvious simplicity," said Gallagher, who was also touched that Francis "bowed his head to the world and asked for its prayers."

It was the pope's choice of name that most touched the Rev. Allan Fitzgerald, a theologian and director of the Augustinian Institute at Villanova University.

"The name Francis suggests he's got a simple side," said Fitzgerald, since it appeared Bergoglio had chosen the name of St. Francis of Assisi, beloved for his devotion to the poor and to animals.

Bishop David M. O'Connell of the Diocese of Trenton noted that Bergoglio had spent the day after he was consecrated a bishop working in a soup kitchen. Many observers also noted that as cardinal-archbishop of Buenos Aires, the 76-year-old Bergoglio rode the bus and subway to work and had cooked his own meals.

Around the region, Bergoglio's election was also met with ethnic pride and raw emotion.

"It's about time. I can't believe it. Wow," said Maria Travaglio. Born and raised in Argentina, she wept with joy in the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul after news came that a countryman had been chosen.

Estela Reyes Bugg, 59, a native of Honduras, agreed.

"Half of the Catholics around the world are Latino," she said.

Church leaders were likewise elated.

"This man is almost perfect," Camden Bishop Dennis Sullivan said of the new pope. "He has feet in both cultures."

"A tremendous amount of joy" is how Msgr. Hugh Shields, pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas parish in South Philadelphia, described the mood among his membership, which is 40 percent Latino. He said he expected a larger-than-usual turnout at St. Thomas' Spanish Mass at 5:30 p.m. Saturday.

"He is a wonderful choice," said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

He called Pope Francis "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."

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

The mood was ebullient, even playful, inside Villanova University's campus ministry center, where a small group had gathered to watch Francis make his first public appearance.

"Oh, he's so cute!" exclaimed 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 also works at the center. "He'll bring in an interesting cultural perspective."

Bergoglio's choice will be "good for Argentina and the whole Catholic Church in Latin America," where Catholic identity has been declining for decades, said Eduardo J. Gomez, an assistant professor of public policy at Rutgers University-Camden.

As millions of poor people in Latin America began migrating from rural areas to cities in the 1970s, he said, many turned away from Roman Catholicism to Protestant Pentecostalism, a brand of fervid, sometimes ecstatic worship marked by speaking in tongues.

Bergoglio's selection "might revive Catholic popularity in the region," Gomez said.

Terry Rey, chairman of the religion department at Temple University, also hailed Bergoglio's selection, which he called "a very safe and strategic move by the Catholic Church hierarchy."

"Since the 1960s," Rey wrote in an e-mail, "the cardinals and bishops have been keenly aware that in order for the Catholic Church to remain relevant to the contemporary world, they must listen more carefully and sincerely to the faithful from those parts of God's creation that Europe colonized.

"If the pope is the face of the Catholic Church," he added, "then his face should look like all of these people, and he should sound a great deal like them, too.

In the basement of the Aquinas Center in South Philadelphia, Latino immigrants who gather on Wednesday nights to learn the foundations of Catholicism were thrilled with the selection of a cardinal from Argentina as papa, the Spanish word for pope.

"When we heard his name, we were filled with joy," said Adriana Perez, 29, a Guatemalan immigrant who was among more than 20 participants in the three-year program at the center next to St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Church at 17th and Morris Streets.

Victor Manzanres, 34, a Mexican immigrant, said he was "really happy because he's Latino, but more than anything, I hope he has a good message for the whole world, not just Hispanics."

Contact David O'Reilly

at 856-779-3841, or @doreillyinq on Twitter.

Contributing to this article were staff writers Jeff Gammage, Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman, Carolyn Davis, Claudia Vargas, Allison Steele, Martha Woodall, Aubrey Whelan, Robert Moran, and Chris Palmer.

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