From Catholic parishes to university common rooms to the streets outside parochial schools, Chicagoans celebrated the selection of Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new pope and pondered how his diverse background might impact their religion’s standing in the world.
Thomas Baima, vice rector for academic affairs at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, one of the nation’s largest seminaries, said he believed Bergoglio – who took the name Pope Francis – was a smart choice.
“The election of Pope Francis brings to completion the globalization of the Catholic Church,” Baima said. “John Paul went to all corners of the world. Now we have a pope from one of those corners.”
Catherine Sims, a pastoral associate at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Libertyville, said, “For us to go into the Americas for the very first time, and South America, is awesome.”
She applauded church leaders for selecting a pope from an area of the world with a large and growing population of Catholics, and also noted the significance of Bergoglio’s choice of the name Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, who devoted himself to service of the poor.
“When he picks a name like that, it tells you a lot about who he wants to emulate,” Sims said. “Christ revealed himself to St. Francis and said rebuild my church. If he’s taken a name like that, and he’s from South America, we’re probably going in a new direction with new leadership in the Vatican.”
Having spent most of his time outside of Rome, the new pope could bring a fresh perspective to the church, said Fr. Larry Collins, pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Des Plaines.
“As an outsider, he’s seen the way the world sees issues,” Collins said.
That perspective could come in handy as the new pope faces a Catholic church ripe with challenges, Collins and other local Catholics said.
“This is the first pope who has to harness all of the media power that the Vatican now has and really use that to evangelize in new ways,” said Sean Lee, 24, an account manager with Word on Fire, a Skokie-based Catholic media ministry.
The new pope will have to continue to address the scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church for years, Sims said, and work to bring people back to the church.
“We can’t keep having former Catholics as the biggest denomination in the world,” Sims said. “What we need to do is reach out to people, to heal, to invite, to help them engage and feel the Catholic faith is not a faith of the past.”
The Rev. Sean O'Sullivan, pastor at St. Precopius Church in Pilsen, said Latinos at his church had been hoping for a Latin American pope last papal election when Former Pope Benedict XVI was elected.
"Last election (Bergoglio) was second in line," O'Sullivan said. "So within the community there was a high of hope that it would be someone from Latin America this time."
O'Sullivan also pointed out that one of the greatest areas of growth for the church is in Latin America, so having a pope from that region could be beneficial for the church.
At St. Barnabas Church in Beverly, a longtime Irish Catholic stronghold, Rev. William Malloy didn’t think his parishioners would have a hard accepting someone of Latin descent.
“I think they will be highly approving,” Malloy said. “It’s a welcome change from the insularity of Europe … a real breath of fresh air.”
More surprising than ethnicity was age, Malloy said. Pope Francis is 76.
“I thought they might choose someone younger, given the rigors of the job,” he said. “Leading the church is a task that requires a lot of energy, traveling and being able to relate to younger people.”
As for the priority list, Malloy also mentioned the need to address the scandals that have rocked the church in the last decade: “He has to do a lot of healing. … He’ll have to address a broad constituency … to understand the economic challenges, know how people are living and be a man of peace.”
Mercedes MacLaughlin moved to the Chicago area 10 years ago from Buenos Aires, where Bergoglio was known for his humility and work among the poor.
"I feel like it's a loss for Buenos Aires but it's a great thing for the world," said MacLaughlin, who attends St. Ignatius Church in Rogers Park.
She said Bergoglio is known for taking public transportation. During Holy Week, he visits hospitals and churches in poor neighborhoods, she said.
"He is a really good guy, he's very humble,” she said.
In Tinley Park, where approximately 65 percent of the residents are Catholic, Father James Finno of St. Stephen Deacon and Martyr called the announcement of the first Latin American pope “very exciting.”
Finno acknowledged that Bergoglio takes on a divided flock and a church “badly bruised by scandals.” But he thought the selection of his name indicated his spirituality, he said.
“He should focus on Christ and the basic message of love,” Finno said. “The fact that he chose the name ‘Francis,’ I think, shows that he is a humble man who wants to bring us together.”
At St. Benedict Church in Blue Island, where 65 percent of parishioners are Hispanic, the selection had special meaning, said Rev. Ismael Sandoval.
“Knowing that we have a new pope whose first language is Spanish is a source of pride,” he said. “The College of Cardinals know that the hope of the Catholic Church is in the Hispanic Catholics, even here in Chicago. Pope Francis is a great choice for our times. He is very connected with the people.”
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