Local Roman Catholic leaders used the words “prayerful,” “humble” and “deeply holy” Wednesday in describing the newly chosen Pope Francis, formerly Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who is the first pontiff from South America.
Catholic leaders from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Lafayette acknowledged knowing little of the former archbishop of Buenos Aires but said they had faith the College of Cardinals chose the right person for the job of leading the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics.
The largest portion of the world’s Catholic population, 39 percent, lives in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Argentina, Francis’ home country, is home to the 11th largest Roman Catholic population, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
Francis, 76, was elected Wednesday by the cardinals, two days into the Papal Conclave inside the Sistine Chapel to elect a replacement for Pope Benedict XVI, who became the first pope in nearly 600 years to resign the papacy.
Archbishop Gregory Aymond, of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said he was initially surprised at the choice, but once he learned more about the new pope and what he did for Argentina and Catholics there, he became more and more excited.
“I’m sure that the Hispanic community is proud and they should be because they gave us a pope,” Aymond said. “The church is alive and well in Latin America.”
He said from what he knows, Francis lived a simple life in Argentina, rides the bus to work and tries to mold his life after St. Francis of Assisi
“St. Francis had a great love for people, but a special love for the poor,” Aymond said, and he thinks the new pope has those same qualities.
Aymond also said he hoped Francis will continue what Benedict started in his re-evangelization efforts by proclaiming this year as the “Year of Faith.”
Bishop Robert Muench, of the diocese of Baton Rouge, also said he doesn’t know much about Francis, joking that, “We have not golfed together.” But he said he has read about the new pope and feels he is well-qualified for the role.
Muench said he felt a sense of “awe and wonderment” while watching the new pope unveiled before a packed and festive crowd in St. Peter’s Square. He and other officials watched the events unfold over television at the Catholic Life Center on South Acadiana Thruway.
“His presence today revealed a humble man of God and person of great inspiration,” Muench said at a news conference at the center.
He added, “Pope Francis is eminently suited to assume the awesome and daunting responsibility as the successor to Saint Peter.”
Francis’ first act as pope, in which he asked the people gathered outside the Sistine Chapel in St. Peter’s Square to “pray for God to bless him before he blessed them,” was very telling about the man under the vestments, Muench said.
“I thought that was very significant and I think that the demeanor that he showed, his humility and his own (feelings) of love and care came through very clearly,” Muench said.
Tom Ryan, director of the Loyola Youth Ministry, said he was also moved by Francis asking his new flock to pray for him as both pope and bishop of Rome.
“It speaks to his humility,” Ryan said. “He needs prayer; he needs the blessing of other people and it empowers the faithful.”
Although Jesuits are viewed as ideologically liberal compared with other sections of the church, Ryan said, Francis’ views are more conservative than other Jesuits’.
“I think he’s a complex person,” Ryan said. “He’s not easy to put into a box, but that may be good. He can appeal across lines.”
Ryan said taking the name Francis could be an homage to both St. Francis of Assisi, who was told by God that he wanted Francis of Assisi to rebuild his church, and St. Francis Xavier, a Jesuit saint.
“I think his name harkens back to both,” Ryan said. “I think the meaning of that name is a rich meaning; it is not a simple meaning.”
Going into the conclave, Francis was not on the shortlist of papal observers to be chosen by the cardinals, but people forget that in the previous conclave, he came in second to Pope Benedict XVI, Ryan said. Now both are in the unprecedented position of a new pope coming in with the previous pope still living, something the world has not seen in nearly 600 years, which sets up an interesting dynamic.
“I think that it’s good to draw on advice from many different sources and we need new vision, new blood and I think that Pope Benedict is not interested in influencing the new pope,” he said. “The new pope may draw in the wisdom and the insights and hopefully he will not be bound by his predecessor.”
Bishop Michael Jarrell, of the Diocese of Lafayette, said the choice of an Argentinian cardinal as pope will “be an affirmation for all of our South American Catholics,” but challenges do lie ahead.
“I think he has to reassure everyone that he intends to be true and faithful to the teaching of the church and that he will continue to show the church’s charitable arm and emphasize the good that the church can do for humanity,” Jarrell said.
Francis is well known in Rome and his parents were Italian, so while he was not labeled as one of the favorites going into the conclave, he is not a complete surprise, Jarrell said.
“If you can get 77 cardinals to back you, then I have every confidence in his abilities,” Jarrell said.