‘A kind, gentle, prayerful, humble man’

Midlands reacts to the new pope

mlucas@thestate.comMarch 13, 2013 

— As word spread Wednesday that a new Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, had been elected by the conclave gathered in Rome, many around the Midlands reacted with joy.

“It’s an exciting time,” said the Rev. Matthew Gray of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Columbia. “Even if you are not Catholic, it’s an exciting time.’”

Thousands began pouring into St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Tuesday when the College of Cardinals began voting in earnest. Those numbers in the square swelled Wednesday afternoon, as white smoke could be seen pouring from the famous chimney atop the Sistine Chapel to signal a selection.

The excitement was no less thousands of miles away at St. Joseph, where about 20 staff members, including Gray, had been waiting and watching an office TV since Tuesday.

When the smoke began, Gray said they began jumping up and down and ran out to ring the church bells. The bells were still ringing about an hour later when the new pontiff, who will be called Francis, stepped out on the balcony at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

The cardinal from Argentina is the 266th pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church and the first non-European leader of the church in more than 1,200 years. In choosing Francis, 76, the cardinals sent a powerful message that the future of the church lies in the global south, home to the bulk of the world’s Catholics.

“South America has a huge percentage of Catholics,” Gray said. “It’s a large, vibrant community, so just to have a South American pope is significant.”

At Cardinal Newman, school was getting ready to let out when the white smoke appeared. Staff at the private Catholic school of 455 students in Columbia scrambled to pull up the breaking news on the school’s closed-circuit TV as it began to unfold but weren’t sure students would be around by the time the announcement came.

Principal Jacqualine Kasprowski said students had been learning about the conclave and its process all week in their theology classes, adding “most of our students were young children when the last pope was announced.” Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis’ predecessor, was elected in 2005.

“All of us are excited because this is the person that sets the direction for our church,” she said. “It is history in the making.”

Catholics were celebrating elsewhere in the Midlands as well.

The Rev. Sandy McDonald at St. John Neumann Church in Northeast Richland said when the new pope appeared on TVs in classrooms at their school next door, children began jumping up and down.

“We think they were more excited about seeing the new pope than they were of (seeing) Justin Bieber,” he said, laughing.

The Midlands Latino population also would be excited, he said, especially by the conclave’s choice in pontiff. He said a pope from South America would bring the church’s Hispanic ministry a “great feeling of pride and joy.”

About 400 to 500 people regularly attend St. John Neumann’s 5:30 p.m. Sunday mass conducted in Spanish.

Msgr. Richard D. Harris of St. Joseph Catholic Church, who was meeting with Charleston Diocese Bishop Robert Guglielmone and other church officials, said from all indications, the selection was unexpected.

“It was interesting how quiet the crowd became at the announcement of his name,” he said in a prepared statement.

“To have a Shepherd from a country where the Catholic population is rapidly growing is indeed confirmation that the Holy Spirit guided the College of Cardinals in their decision.”

Gray and McDonald said they were impressed with the new pope’s background, reputed to be one steeped in simplicity and pastoral humility.

“(At St. Joseph’s), our first impression is he is a kind, gentle, prayerful, humble man,” Gray said. “I’m very happy about that.”

McDonald said Pope Francis’ background, combined with the fact that he is from Latin America, may bring a different “consciousness for the church that’s beyond the center or outside of Europe.”

“I believe he will bring different nuances to the priorities of the church,” he said.

The New York Times contributed. Reach Lucas at (803) 771-8657.

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