Locals react to papal choice

Amid celebrations, real challenges for new popeBishop releases pope statementFrancis is first pope from the AmericasPhoto gallery from Vatican City

Catholics from St. Peter’s Square to the Woodstock Square celebrated as a cardinal took to a Vatican balcony Wednesday to say those two Latin words: “Habemus papam,” or “We have a pope.”

According to research from the Association of Religion Data Archives, more than 60 percent of McHenry County residents who identify themselves as adhering to a particular faith say they are Roman Catholics.

Cardinals from around the world selected Buenos Aires-born Jorge Mario Bergoglio on the second day of the papal conclave. Seventy-six-year-old Bergoglio, who will be called Francis I, marks a new beginning for a church steeped in tradition but rattled by scandal.

Reversing the custom of selecting a European pope, Francis – as the first from the Americas – can invigorate the flock, local religious leaders said.

“This is a breakthrough,” said the Rev. Burt Absalon of St. Mary’s in Woodstock. “We have for the first time a non-European pope – that’s going to bring in a new perspective to the church.”

The Rev. Johnson Lopez, a native Colombian and also from St. Mary’s, hailed the college of cardinals’ choice to reach out to the faithful in the Western Hemisphere. Latin America has a vibrant church, and accounts for about 40 percent of the world’s Catholics.

“It’s great news for us,” Lopez said. “We are very happy to see that.”

His papal moniker was a conscious choice, some religious leaders believe. “Francis” is a nod to changing times for a church shaken by sex abuse and financial scandals. 

St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the most revered Catholic saint, known for his dedication to the poor and trying to rebuild the church in a time of turmoil. 

“I’ve been praying for a new Francis of Assisi for the church,” Absalon said. “I think my prayers were answered.”

Bergoglio has stood out for his austerity. Even after he became Argentina’s top church official in 2001, he never lived in the ornate church mansion, preferring a simple bed in a downtown building, heated by a small stove on frigid weekends. For years, he took public transportation around the city, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina’s capital.

“We are blessed by a lot of intellectuals and theologians, a lot of great minds, but what we need is the simplicity of Francis to inspire us,” Absalon said.

Bishop David Malloy of the Rockford Diocese said it was “with great joy and thanksgiving” that a new pope was selected. 

“[May the] Holy Spirit guide our Holy Father as he takes up the cross of his office and the concerns of the church in the world through his prayer, his action, his charity and in his love for Christ and all of us.”

Bergoglio reportedly had finished second in the 2005 conclave that produced Benedict XVI, who last month became the first pope to resign in 600 years.

• The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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