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Pope selection thrills area Catholics

POSTED: March 14, 2013 12:19 a.m.

Andy McRoberts, youth director of St. Michael Catholic Church in Gainesville, was excited about the election of the new pope on Wednesday in Italy.

Buenos Aires’ Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio appeared before the world after many people, including Catholics in Gainesville, waited for the votes.

The Argentine cardinal is the first pope to take the name of Francis, after St. Francis of Assisi, a man known for prayer, humility and helping the poor.

“The new pope is fantastic,” McRoberts said as he herded teens into Mass at the church. “He seems vibrant and full of energy.”

Bergoglio, 76, is the first Latin American pope, the son of an Italian immigrant, and tears and cheers erupted across that region. Many expressed hope that he would help bring the church closer to the poverty-wracked region that is home to more Catholics than any other.

Father Jaime Barona of St. Michael said he was very taken with the new pope. Barona said everything about him was simple and peaceful.

Bergoglio was dressed very plainly, in his first appearance before the world in his new position. He asked the world to pray over him, and his prayers of “Our Father” and “Hail Mary,” were simple, taken from the Gospel of Luke, Barona said.

“The new election is really good for us,” the local priest said. “There is too much division between the haves and the have-nots.”

Europe is the old church and Latin America is the new, McRoberts said.

It’s a kind of beautiful bridge between the cultures, Barona said. Nearly half of the world’s Roman Catholics live in the Americas, north and south, or the Caribbean.

“I feel the hands of God coming upon us all,” Barona said.

The Rev. Bill Coates, senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gainesville, said he was surprised, but pleased with the decision. That the new pope chose the name Francis also bodes well.

“An emphasis on simplicity and purity would be good for the world,” Coates said.

The pastor said there’s a widespread perception that bureaucratic leaders in the church have gotten in the way of its purpose and the new pope might have been specifically chosen to change that.

“The pope can have a huge influence in the world for good,” he said.

The new pope’s common touch was evident in his first words to the crowd.

“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, when he started saying, ‘Good afternoon,’ just like someone saying hello to a friend,” said Bishop Eugenio Lira, secretary-general of the Mexican Conference of Bishops. “He will certainly be the pope who is closest to the people of Latin America. He knows the problems of Latin America very well.”

He was known for taking the subway and mingling with the poor of Buenos Aires while archbishop. Monsignor Jose Cummings at the Cathedral of San Juan noted that the new pope “has presented himself as a simple and humble man,” and specifically mentioned the word charity in his first remarks.

“It’s incredible!” said Buenos Aires’ resident Martha Ruiz, 60, as she wept.

She said she had been in many meetings with the cardinal and described him as “a man who transmits great serenity.”

In Cuba, parish priest Gregorio Alvarez said he believed Pope Francis’ background could lead the church to focus more on the ills afflicting humanity, and less on internal issues.

“One hopes that the church will be closer to the problems of humankind and not only the problems of the church,” Alvarez said at the Jesus of Miramar Church in a leafy western suburb of Havana, where bells pealed following the announcement.

“Being Latin American gives him an advantage. He understands the problems of poverty, of violence, of manipulation of the masses,” Alvarez said. “All that gives him experience for the job. ... He’s one of the family.”

Even Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, a sometimes antagonist who once compared Bergoglio’s stands on abortion and gay rights to “medieval times and the Inquisition,” offered congratulations.

“It’s our desire that you have ... a fruitful pastoral work, developing such great responsibilities in terms of justice, equality, fraternity and peace for humankind,” she wrote in an open letter.

Latin America has some of the world’s sharpest divides between rich and poor, and Marvin Cruz, a Catholic at the Parish of the Miraculous in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, said the pope’s “main challenge will be the fight against economic inequality.”

“His training as a Jesuit will allow him to take it head-on,” Cruz said.

Soledad Loaeza, a political science professor at the Colegio de Mexico who studies the church, said Bergoglio was a logical choice. “First, Latin America is the most important region in the world for the church,” but one where evangelical churches have been making inroads. “So it may also be an attempt to stop the decline in the number of Catholics.”

For church leaders seeking growth, instead of the aging, declining congregations in Europe or the United States, “there are only two regions,” Loaeza said: Africa and Latin America.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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