The white smoke rose from the chimney atop the Cistine Chapel in Rome Wednesday and “The shoes of the fisherman” have been filled once more. For 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, more than 77 million in the U.S., and 600 families at Holy Family Church in Elizabeth City, this has been a week of handwringing, anticipation and in the end, history as Pope Francis becomes the 266th pontiff in the church’s history.
After the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI the world had been watching and waiting for last week when Catholic cardinals from around the globe gathered in Vatican City to elect a pope. The white smoke rising from the chimney over the Sistine Chapel would finally signal a yes vote last Wednesday. Then the world waited to see which man would emerge on the Vatican balcony overlooking tens of thousands of people anxious about the next leader of the largest Christian denomination in the U.S.
“It is a surprise, a good surprise,” says Jose Gil Ph.D., a professor at Elizabeth City State University of the election of Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now known as Pope Francis.
Pope Francis represents two historic firsts; he is the first pope from the Americas and he is the first pope to come from the Jesuit order.
The Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, are an order of Catholic priests that have long been known for their vow of poverty and scholarship. They have also been shrouded in controversy throughout the centuries.
As Argentina’s cardinal, Bergoglio eschewed lavish digs such as a large house and a chauffer driven car. Instead he lived in a small apartment, cooked his own meals and took public transportation when he wasn’t walking amidst the neighborhoods of Buenos Aries.
On his first day as pope, Francis went to the Vatican hotel where he had been staying, packed his suitcase and paid his bill. He seems to be a man who understands humility, says ECSU’s Gil.
“I’m very happy to have somebody very humble,” says Gil. “Right to the point and frugal. He is not regal. I’m very happy.”
Ever since Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the world has been having a conversation about the next pope. Locally, people like Gil and realtor Diana Gardner have been contemplating the future of the papacy.
“To me he is one of the most important and powerful people with his guidance,” Gardner said several days before the election of Pope Francis.
Politically and culturally, even if you’re not Catholic, the pope is one of the most important figures in the geopolitical and social landscape. Once upon a time, of course, he was the most powerful man in Europe, even before kings. And even these days, while political regimes come and go, the pope is still looked to by many around the world for that very guidance Gardner referred to.
Up to last Wednesday, Catholics such as Gardner and Gil contemplated the papacy and the future of their faith. They wondered about the next pope.
“I think it is important for the church to communicate frequently and strongly to keep the Catholic faith alive, to dispel misconceptions. I hope the pope will be a good communicator and educator,” Gardner said last Monday.
Gil was also looking for a man strong in his personal faith, and who is a good communicator. In fact, one of the men thought to be a viable candidate for the papacy is an old friend of Gil’s, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.
“I would be comfortable with him,” said Gil last Monday. “Nobody can accuse him of anything. He is a clean fellow.”
O’Malley is a priest from the Cappuccin order. He is known for wearing the brown robe and cowl of a monk and sandals.
While Francis is not as earthy in appearance, he is known as a down-to-Earth fellow who is willing to mingle with the poor and downtrodden in an effort to minister to their needs. In fact, his decision to call himself Francis is in reference to Francis of Assisi, the priest who ministered to the poor and is known for his love of animals.
“He is a Jesuit and that means he’s super prepared,” says Gil of Pope Francis’s academic background. “He is a professor of theology.”
He is also looked up as a theologically conservative Catholic. However, Jesuits are known to be progressive, especially where social justice is concerned.
Gardner says that as a Catholic woman she has already heard that women will be rebelling against this pope’s conservatism, but not only is it too early to say what Pope Francis will and will not do to bring on descent in the church’s ranks, change is inevitable one way or another.
“Things won’t change overnight,” says Gardner. “This is a church. Things won’t suddenly change.”
For now, however, the world is watching to see what the leader of the Catholic Church will do in the face of much recent controversy. Whether it is dealing with the church’s sex scandals, the question of woman in the priesthood or more recent political scandals inside the Vatican, the hope of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide seems to be that Pope Francis may well be the man to ease the angst.
“He is an original,” says Gil. “He is very humble. City, could not be reached for comments on this story.