ST. LOUIS — After his election initially left many observers stunned and momentarily silent, Pope Francis is being greeted by U.S. Church leaders with a wave of enthusiastic response.
Across the board, from the episcopate to the laity, reaction to the choice of a man whom Supreme Knight Carl Anderson of the Knights of Columbus called "highly intelligent" and "a good shepherd" has been largely positive, with many hailing him as someone who will advance the New Evangelization, inspire Latino Catholics, hold to the doctrinal pattern of his predecessors and be an efficient administrator, all while walking in humility and acting out of deep compassion and care for the poor.
Anderson said the new Pope’s tenure as archbishop in one of the most important cities in Latin America was marked by an unwavering commitment to Church teaching and evangelization, thus preparing him for his greatest challenge, which will be promoting the Gospel in an increasingly secular world.
"He has been unafraid to stand up for his principles and for the Church," he said.
Father Chris Martin, vocation director for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, called Pope Francis "a Pope of firsts" — the first Jesuit pope, the first pope of the New World, the first from Latin America and the first to be named Francis. His choice of the name "Francis," for St. Francis of Assisi, said a lot about how he wants to live his papacy, as did his humility in asking for the people’s prayers before giving the faithful his blessing, Father Martin added.
Matthew Bunson, senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and an authority on the papacy and the Church, was more familiar than most observers with Pope Francis’ background because of his research for a book on Benedict XVI, now pope emeritus. Still, he said of his reaction while on air with Ave Maria Radio’s Al Kresta, "My jaw dropped."
However, he said he can now see a certain logic to the choice, given Pope Francis is said to have been the runner-up to Benedict XVI in the conclave of 2005, when 50 of the current 115 electors were present. Bunson said Cardinal Bergoglio’s name had not surfaced significantly in the weeks leading up to the conclave, but he had been mentioned days before it convened.
Bunson said the new Holy Father has been active in countering radical left-wing government policies on abortion and euthanasia in Argentina. "His homilies have been absolutely fiery, especially in efforts to bring about a re-flowering of Catholic culture in Argentina and in opposing policies and things that are profoundly opposed to the dignity of the human person. In a way, his homilies remind me of St. John Chrysostom. He has a zeal about him, and there is in him very much a prophetic quality of speaking. He was willing to speak out as the archbishop of Buenos Aires and as a generally recognized spiritual leader of Argentina against threats to the human person in all of its forms."
Nowhere has more enthusiasm about the new Pope been expressed than in the U.S. Latino community. Worldwide, Latino Catholics make up 40% of the Catholic population, and there was a certain amount of pre-conclave buzz about a possible pope from Latin America.
Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, said he thinks the Church was prepared to receive a Pope from outside Europe. "Latin America has a tremendous heritage and faith represented in the election of the Holy Father. I’m reminded even of what happened within Europe with the election of a Polish pope. There was a new window on the rich faith and culture of the Church."
Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, who, along with Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, is among U.S. Church leaders who have already met the new Holy Father, said in a statement that he was pleased with the election of Pope Francis. "It is a beautiful sign to have a new Pope who is the first pope from the Americas, from the New World," he said.
Archbishop Gomez knows Pope Francis through their work on the Pontifical Commission for Latin America. Archbishop Chaput first met him at the 1997 Synod for America in Rome. He still keeps on his desk a portrait of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, given to him by the man who would become pope.
Brazilian-born auxiliary Bishop Edgar da Cunha of Newark, N.J., said having a pope from Latin America is a recognition of the importance of the Latin-American Catholic population. "One of the things that is happening in the Church in Latin America is we are losing a lot of people to evangelical and other groups. [Pope Francis] is going to bring a positive image to the Church and bring people back to the Church. People are going to say, ‘You know, I don’t need to go someplace else to practice my faith. I can do it right here in the Catholic Church.’ It will be a huge boost to the Catholic Church, not only in Latin America, but in other parts of the world."
Auxiliary Bishop Eduardo Nevares, the first Hispanic bishop in the Diocese of Phoenix, said that, although the Pope is for the whole world, this election makes Latino Catholics proud and happy. "It makes us feel like we are one with him in a very special way, knowing he understands our culture, our language, our problems."
The new Pope’s gesture of asking the people to pray for him especially struck Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List and a Catholic convert. "He’s submitting himself to our prayer before he gives his own to us. I think that’s beautiful."
Added Dannenfelser, "I think he has a fabulously effective combination: the backbone of an Argentine with the humility of a Jesuit. It’s justice and mercy. It’s easy for the world to misinterpret humility as weak, but it’s not. It’s strong. If we’re going to really fight the culture of death, we really need to understand this."
The new Pope appears to have a good understanding of the importance of Catholic media and the role of all forms of media in the work of the New Evangelization, said Michael Warsaw, president and CEO of EWTN Global Catholic Network.
"EWTN has worked for many years with the television channel of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, the Centro Televisivo Argentino," said Warsaw. "We have produced two exclusive television series there that featured Cardinal Bergoglio, one on the holy Eucharist and the other on the doctors of the Church. In addition, as archbishop, Cardinal Bergoglio was very encouraging of the work of EWTN, particularly our effort in Latin America."
Warsaw said it also was clear that Cardinal Bergoglio believes strongly in the idea of the one American continent, something Blessed John Paul II proposed in his 1998 apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America. "To have a Pope with this same frame of reference and one who knows from personal experience the challenges of our hemisphere is a great blessing."
The Knights of Columbus’ Anderson agrees that Pope Francis’ election will increase the interaction among North, Central and South America, making even more tangible the bridges that will lead to what Blessed John Paul envisioned.
"Those living in the United States sometimes forget that we are not the only ones who live in a country of immigrants and their children — many Latin-American countries have a history of immigration not dissimilar from our own," Anderson said.
The fact that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to be elected to the papacy is not insignificant, said Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit. "This means that he brings to his ministry certain things that are part of Jesuit life and Jesuit formation. Included in this is the gift of discernment, a great optimism about the Holy Spirit being at work in the culture and sometimes even in places where that’s not obvious. He may encourage us to discern, to see where there’s an opening to see the Good News and to see it."
Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, founder and editor of Ignatius Press, said the new Pope was not necessarily appreciated by many of his more liberal fellow Jesuits in Argentina and South America.
As a man of the people who loves the poor and lives a simple life himself, when liberation theology reached his native Argentina, he was all for its noble ideals of de-marginalizing the poor, Father Fessio said. "But he didn’t want the Jesuits to leave the schools and parishes and go into the base communities." Rather, Father Fessio said, he wanted them to transform parishes, as opposed to pushing systemic change: "He wanted a change of heart."
The Ignatius editor said he is delighted with the election of Pope Francis. "I think he will be a good Pope and follow in the footsteps of John Paul II and Benedict. I think he will be a good administrator and that we will see improvements in the Curia."
Concluded Father Fessio, "So, we’re all hopeful."
Judy Roberts writes from