Local Catholics celebrate new pope
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org March 13, 2013 6:08PM
Updated: April 15, 2013 11:31AM
The Rev. Christopher Kuhn was visiting an eighth-grade classroom Wednesday afternoon at St. Mary Grade School in Elgin when the principal came on the loudspeaker: There was white smoke. There was a new pope.
Remembering that moment, Kuhn’s voice was excited, even hours later.
The teacher brought up the scene in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican on a computer screen, and after a few minutes, Kuhn excused himself, the church bells singing as he walked back to the rectory to watch the scene unfold with staff at St. Mary Church of Elgin.
“We all waited with expectation, watching EWTN (the global Catholic TV network), and there he was: the cardinal from Argentina,” he said.
Kuhn was one among many Fox Valley Catholics who celebrated the election Wednesday of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires, as pope.
Bergoglio, who has taken the name Pope Francis I, is the first pope from the church’s Jesuit order and the first pope from the Americas. His election comes after another first: Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to step down as pontiff.
It is not just an important moment for Catholics, according to Bishop David J. Malloy of the Diocese of Rockford, which includes both the Elgin and Aurora areas. The “awesome” responsibility trusted to the new pope “truly affects all people of the world,” Malloy said.
But Kuhn said he especially was expecting “a very happy reception among all our Spanish-speaking Elgin residents.”
“How can they not be happy? I’m happy having a fellow American, in a sense we’re all American — North, Central and South American,” he said.
South American pope
The fact Pope Francis I is from South America is a “big deal” to the students and their families at St. Joseph Catholic School in Elgin, according to Principal Rafael Villagomez. Probably 99 percent of students at the school are Hispanic, Villagomez said.
“It definitely signifies the reality of where we’re going — even here in America, Hispanics becoming the biggest minority. It’s a sign of the times, having a pope who represents a big part of the world.”
And the Rev. Michael Miller of St. Therese of Jesus Parish in Aurora agreed his many Hispanic parishioners will “probably be proud that someone is from Argentina, from Latin America.”
“It’s one of theirs. He’ll understand their reality,” Miller said.
But at the same time, he said, “Life goes on as normal.”
Students at St. Joseph were leaving school just as Pope Francis I’s election was announced, Villagomez said, and they have Thursday and Friday off school while teachers attend a conference in Springfield.
That means those students likely will see a lot of the press coverage about the new pope over the next two days, the principal said. Teachers, too, likely will find out as much as possible about him to add to their lessons next week.
Electing the pope also has been a “great teachable moment” at All Saints Catholic Academy in Naperville, according to Principal Sandy Reneha.
The school has been studying the election process, Reneha said. It had a “conclave” Saturday with its junior high students, attired in full red robes like the cardinals.
“They got educated about each of the candidates, none of which were from Argentina, interestingly. I don’t think anyone saw that coming,” she said.
And even before the announcement, Villagomez said, “the kids — no matter how young they are — they still feel a sense of something big is going on and people are paying attention to us.”
“It’s a fresh start — a new beginning. They get to see the process and how it works.”
Malloy said during a brief press conference Wednesday afternoon he was “pleased and joyful” with the election of Pope Francis I, a choice he called a “great surprise guided by the Holy Spirit.”
The bishop drew attention not only to the new pontiff’s roots in Argentina but also in the Jesuit order.
He may have taken the name Francis from St. Francis of Assisi, “one of the most attractive figures in the history of the church,” Malloy said. Or he may have taken it from fellow Jesuit, Francis Xavier, “a tremendous missionary.” And maybe that would be the image he would bring to the church, he said.
He called the new pope “a man who has lived and exuded humility,” even riding his bike or public transportation to work in Argentina.
The Rev. Dennis Lewandowski, pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Community in southeast Naperville, also noted, “He certainly seems to be a man of compassion who will be of service to the oppressed and downtrodden.”
Malloy also addressed concerns facing the church and the new pope, including attendance at Mass declining, young people drifting away from the church, and a “tremendous wave of secularization that’s going on throughout the world right now.”
But Argentina also has seen “tremendous cultural change” in recent years, the bishop said, and those are issues “the Holy Father has confronted as we are confronting them here.”
And, Lewandowski said, “I really kind of expect him to be a real transformational leader for our church,” a very different pontiff than his predecessor, the pope emeritus.
“I think maybe he will bring a freshness and a newness that Benedict was trying to get out.”
Staff writers Kalyn Belsha and Susan Frick Carlman also contributed to this report.