As Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina took the name of Francis I and assumed the papacy Wednesday, March 13, Catholic leaders across Howard County rejoiced, calling the selection a hopeful sign from the church.
"It's wonderful. Right now I'm just giving thanks to God," said the Rev. Gerard Bowen, pastor at St. John the Evangelist Church in Columbia. "It's a very hopeful sign in the church that the cardinals, rather than selecting someone deeply involved with (the Vatican), they've chosen someone who is a shepherd for the poor."
The selection of Francis came a little more than a day after cardinals first convened in conclave Tuesday, March 12.
"It came sooner than we expected, but I think it speaks well (of Francis)," said the Rev. Dennis Diehl, pastor at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Fulton. "The cardinals have been together for almost two weeks now, since Benedict's retirement, and they've had time to think about things ... they came together and got someone in place to get the Church moving forward again."
At 76, Francis is the 266th pope in the history of the Catholic Church. He is the first Jesuit pope and the first non-European pope, as well as the first to take the name "Francis."
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"The choice (of name) is a good one," Bowen said. "It's a call to the church to raise up the poor ... I think we need a Holy Father that can acknowledge and understand the struggles our people have. The church is an instrument of God, and it's one that can be healing and helpful. I think those are the two things he will bring: healing and hope. And a sense of joy."
St. Francis Xavier was the first Jesuit missionary, but Francis I humility and stewardship reminded leaders of another saint. The Rev. Matthew Buening, pastor at St. Paul Catholic Church in Ellicott City, said the name instantly reminded him of the story of St. Francis of Assisi: God came to him in a dream and said "rebuild my church."
"That's the message, and here's a guy who realizes that in the modern era, and all the things going on in the world today, there has to be a rebuilding, a strengthening of the Church," he said. "That, at the heart of it, is what the papacy is going to be about."
St. Francis of Assisi's greatest hallmark, Buening said, was his humility, which Francis I embodies well.
"That moment, when he stood on the balcony and, before even giving his blessing, asked the people to pray for him, that just overjoyed me," he said. "He is going to be great blessing to the Church."
The election of the new people means the Roman Catholic Church, totalling more than 1.2 billion members worldwide, has a new leader in time for Holy Week and Easter, the most important celebration in the Catholic calendar. The church has been without a pope since Feb. 28 and the historic resignation and retirement of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
"(Francis) certainly has a lot to do, going into Holy Week, which is the busiest time in the Church calendar," Diehl said. "I think he'll sleep well at night, when he does get to sleep."