Local Catholics rejoiced Wednesday over the historic election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, the first Latin American pope.
Flor Ortega, a junior at the University of Dayton and a native of Chihuahua, Mexico, wept as she watched the announcement at UD’s John F. Kennedy Memorial Union. She called her father and shouted, “Papa, he’s Argentinian! He’s Argentinian!”
Ortega is one of many Miami Valley residents who embraced the new pope and his litany of firsts: the first non-European pope, the first Jesuit, the first Pope Francis.
“There’s just something about it that fills my heart with so much joy,” she said.
Archbishop Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati said that the College of Cardinals have signaled to the world that “the Catholic church is a universal church, and that we should be looking beyond Europe and to other parts of the world. This choice acknowledges that Spanish-speaking Catholics are important to the church, recognized by the church and loved by the church.”
Schnurr said he rejoiced with the Hispanic community in the archdiocese and throughout the country. “Latin America and Africa are the two fastest-growing Catholic populations in the world, and so as you know, right from the get-go there was speculation the cardinals would be looking to either Latin America or Africa, and that speculation proved to be true.”
Schnurr has never met the new pope, but he has heard that Argentinians describe him as a saint. “If you’re going to lead the church, it’s not bad to have the reputation of being a saint,” he said.
New face of Catholicism
The son of Cuban exiles, Miguel Díaz served as United States Ambassador to the Holy See from 2009-2012. “As the first Latino to represent the United States at the Holy See, I watched the news of the first Latin American pope with great joy,” said Diaz, now a professor of faith and culture at UD. “Pope Francis is the new global face of Catholicism.”
Maria Elena Cata of Centerville, 80, a native of Cuba, didn’t think she’d live long enough to witness a Latin American pope. “I am very happy with it,” she said. “It will be very special for Latin American Catholics that he speaks Spanish.”
Cata suspects that Pope Francis I will exude the same personal warmth as Pope John Paul II. “When he invited people to pray, he chose the Our Father and the Hail Mary, prayers that everyone will know.”
Many local Catholics drew hope and inspiration when Bergoglio chose the name of Francis I, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi. Kristine Ward of Kettering noted that St. Francis was called by God to reform the church of the 13th century, and she hopes Francis I also has a reformer’s spirit. As chair of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition, Ward has pushed for change in the wake of the child sexual abuse scandal. “It’s a time of great hope, but in order to reform, it’s going to involve a walk through some great pain, and I hope this pope does it,” she said.
Meaningful reform, Ward said, must start with the removal of some bishops implicated in the child sex abuse scandal, including Kansas City Bishop Robert W. Finn, who was convicted last year of failing to report an abusive priest. “In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, six priests who were removed from public ministry for credible allegations of sexual abuse remain on paid vacation,” Ward added. “They have not been laicized by the Vatican. These cases have to be acted upon.”
David Clohessy, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said he’s pleased the new pope isn’t part of the Vatican establishment. “We hope that will give him the courage to shake things up and put the prevention of abuse and cover up first on his priority list,” said Clohessy, who was in Rome watching the historic event unfold.
The new pope has drawn criticism from gay-rights groups for his staunch opposition to same-sex marriage. “Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis I, has a long history of opposing equality for gays and lesbians in Argentina,” Andre Banks, executive director of All Out, said in a release Wednesday.
Living up to St. Francis
But Ann Wilger of Centerville, a longtime advocate for gay rights, said she is cautiously optimistic. “I was impressed that he doesn’t own a car and lives humbly,” she said. “I was impressed with his attitude when he came out on the balcony and asked people to pray for him. I’m not as impressed that he adheres to the party line when it comes to homosexuality, but look how surprised we were by Pope John XXIII.”
Diaz noted that in 2001 Bergoglio visited a hospice to kiss the feet of a dozen AIDS patients in another action that invokes parallels with St. Francis of Assisi who tended to the ill and suffering and the lepers. The new pope’s namesake also set an early example of interfaith tolerance, Diaz said: “St. Francis met a sultan, and was impressed with Muslims and prayer. Pope Francis certainly has the potential to be a powerful symbol for bridge building across religions and cultures and across continents.”
Ramon Luzarraga, a lecturer in UD’s department of religious studies, noted that Argentina is the most European of the Latin American countries and that Bergoglio is of Italian descent. Italian popes led the church for 455 years until John Paul II was named in 1978. “There’s a large Italian population in Argentina, a large German population,” Luzarraga said. “That is a very shrewd way of bridging the church in Europe with the church of the two-thirds of the world where the majority of the Catholics live.”
Bergoglio lived in a spartan apartment, with a roommate, and took public transportation, which was important due to Argentina’s recent history, particularly the atrocities committed by the military junta that controlled the country in the 1970s and early 1980s, Luzarraga said.
“He had to deal with the baggage,” he said. “A lot of the people who collaborated with the military junta in Argentina were members of the church. Bergoglio himself was accused of collaboration, although he denied it and he was cleared.
Ann Hirt of Bellbrook, who is a liberal Catholic, was disappointed about the pope’s reputation as a strong conservative, but she takes hope from the name Francis. “I also remember that Oscar Romero was quite conservative when he was elected to Archbishop of El Salvador and he aligned himself with the wealthy, but he totally changed his direction.”
Hirt added, “Whoever is selected as pope will probably have little influence on my faith, my church attendance, my participation in community, my beliefs, my continued commitment to growth, my desire to learn from other faiths. Those nuns, laity, priests, ministers, rabbis, those who care for others — these are the people who influence my faith.”
Staff writers Michael Pitman, Tom Beyerlein and Matt Sanctis