Catholics around the Diocese of Rochester reacted with interest, surprise and tears Wednesday to the elevation to the papacy of a humble man and the first Jesuit ever to occupy the position.
Grace Tillinghast, a parishioner at St. Theodore Parish and president of the Rochester Hispanic Business Association, was among those who contributed tears.
Tillinghast, a native of Argentina, had been following the election of the new pope with great interest, and thought a Brazilian cardinal might be elected. But she said she started crying when she heard the name of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
“I never thought that in my lifetime I would see a pope from Latin America, much less from my own country,” she said.
“The election of the new pope from Argentina is a moment of profound joy not only for South America, but for all the Americas,” said a statement from the New York State Catholic Conference, which represents all of the state’s bishops. “His election serves as a wonderful moment of unity for the nations of the New World.”
Many across the world share in the joy at the election of Pope Francis, noted the Diocese of Rochester’s Apostolic Administrator, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, who is bishop of the neighboring Diocese of Syracuse.
“It is with joy, happiness and gratitude to our gracious God, that we welcome Cardinal Bergoglio, Pope Francis, as our Holy Father,” Bishop Cunningham.
Bishop Cunningham noted that Pope Francis asked people to join him in prayer for Bishop Emeritus of Rome, Benedict XVI, uniting all through prayer in a gesture of filial devotion.
Pope Francis also asked for our prayers, he pointed out.
“I trust the clergy, religious, and laity of the Diocese of Rochester will honor his request as we join him ‘in the journey of friendship, of love, of trust and of faith,’ ” Bishop Cunningham said. “To him we pledge not only our prayer but also our affection and loyalty.
The election of Pope Francis came as no great surprise to Timothy Thibodeau, a Nazareth College history and political science professor who specializes in the papacy and the history of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Bergoglio had been listed among the top 20 papabili, or likely candidates for the papacy, he noted, largely because he reportedly was a favorite during the 2005 conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI.
"He apparently came in a very close second to Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger," Thibodeau said, noting that many of the cardinals voting in conclave this week also took part in the 2005 election and apparently still felt strongly about Cardinal Bergoglio. "He was a known commodity that doesn’t bring any real baggage or concerns, apart from his age, which some people are already talking about."
The new pope is 76, but the cardinal electors apparently were not as concerned about a potential pope’s age as they were about his abilities to lead the church, Thibodeau added. The cardinal electors most likely were impressed by Cardinal Bergoglio’s humble nature and pastoral experience, he said, and the fact that he is from the South American nation of Argentina likely was attractive as well.
"You’re talking about a church (in South America) that is growing, and where half of the world’s Catholics live," he noted.
Father Laurence Tracy, who has been an advocate for the local Latino community for more than 40 years, agreed that a Latin American was the right choice at the right time.
“Symbolically, it’s a very important choice for Latino Catholics all over the world but especially for us in the United States,” he said.
Yet Father Tracy did express concerns about the new pope’s role during the 1976-1983 “dirty war” in Argentina, when military generals ruled the country and violated the human rights of many people.
“He was at least silent … and didn’t speak out about abuses against the people,” Father Tracy said. Yet leaders can change as did Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, who originally was regarded as a conservative reactionary bishop, he said.
“But when he became the archbishop, he became very progressive,” said Father Tracy. “Your history doesn’t necessarily oblige you to follow in the same line. We’ll give him a chance to prove himself.”
Father Jesus Flores, diocesan coordinator of migrant ministry, was initially struck by the symbolism of the cardinals’ choice being from the Third World. But after two decades of hearing about the growth of the Catholic Church in Latin America, the choice seems appropriate, he noted.
Father Flores said the cardinals were also making a statement by choosing the first Jesuit pope.
The Jesuits "have been at the forefront of many pastoral actions,” he said. “And there is always the intent of being a missionary in the work of the Jesuits. And in this new evangelization, if we are not being a missionary (church), then it means nothing new.”
Thibodeau agreed that his membership in the Society of Jesus is another exciting aspect of this new papacy.
"Certainly I think anyone who’s familiar with the order knows they have a history of being a modern religious order, not a contemplative order, but an order that’s very pastoral and active in education and social-justice issues. I think the social-justice pastoral issue was a very strong plus for him," he said.
Prior to Pope Francis’ election, some had questioned whether any member of the Jesuits, who avoid positions of authority, would ever agree to being pope.
“It just goes to show you miracles can happen,” joked Father William Graf, chair of the religious studies department at St. John Fisher College and the William and Helen Cavanaugh Chair of Catholic Studies.
Pope Francis likely will bring his Ignatian spirituality into the papacy, said a local Jesuit.
“Jesuits have always, in keeping with the theology and spirituality of St. Ignatius (founding general secretary of the order), have been people at the service of the church,” said Jesuit Father Edward Salmon, president of McQuaid Jesuit in Brighton.
Father Salmon said he was just learning about the former Cardinal Bergoglio, but that what he had read so far bespoke a priest who lived simply and advocated social-justice issues.
“I understand he is a great advocate for the poor and does not so much preach about social justice, but rather his actions speak louder than his words,” said Father Salmon, who noted that then-Archbishop Bergolio had asked Argentinians not to travel to Rome to see him become a cardinal in 2001, but to remain in Argentina and give their travel money to the poor.
Catholic News Service reported Wednesday that Cardinal Bergoglio has lived in a simple apartment rather than the luxurious residence next to the cathedral in Buenos Aires, cooks for himself and travels most of the time by bus, wearing the cassock of an ordinary priest.
“I would imagine he would bring to his preaching and teaching and his actions a renewed of how the church is called to be committed to social justice and to those who are most in need,” Father Salmon said.
Thibodeau said he felt a sense of déjà vu when he saw Pope Francis come out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica to address the enormous crowd filling the square below and stretching all the way down the Via della Conciliazione.
"What I thought when I saw him come out was he reminded me of John Paul I when he was elected in 1978. He seems like a deeply spiritual and a very humble man," he said.
Father Graf noted that the new pope has an important role to play in bringing people together.
“He’s called Supreme Pontiff, and it does mean he’s a bridge builder,” Father Graf said. “A role he can play is to bridge the third-world and the first-world.”
He also noted that the worldwide fascination with the conclave and the Catholic Church in the middle of Lent illustrates how much influence the church still has in the world.
“It says to me that the church is alive and well and people do pay attention when someone is elected pope,” he said.