AREA -- The election last week of a new Pope for the Roman Catholic Church came as a surprise both in his identity as Argentina's Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio and with the relative swiftness of the decision by the College of Cardinals.
And even as pundits and observers from around the world analyzed and second guessed the choice and Bergoglio, taking the name of Francis I, emerged for the first time as leader of the Church's 1.2 billion members to bestow his blessing on the crowds that packed St. Peter's Square, ordinary Catholics wondered and hoped for the best.
"I think that, like a lot of folks, I was surprised," said Fr. Paul Ring of St. Joseph's Church in Pepperell. "His choice came somewhat out of the blue. He was not one of the odds-on favorites, so it was a bit of a surprise. I was very moved when I saw him come out and wave to the people and ask the crowds for their prayers and blessings. There's a way of humility about him. He's a man of great composure while at the same time, he's a man who is open to the Holy Spirit. I was very heartened by the choice the Holy Spirit made through the cardinals and I think he'll do great things for the Church."
"It struck me how peaceful the election process was," said Fr. Jeremy St. Martin, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Townsend. "Some elections can be contentious. Sometimes there's a clear winner and loser and it's drawn out and the media can be saturated by the whole thing. But this was a unifying event. It was a joyful event for the whole world, not just people who are Catholic. Francis is a member of the human family and anyone can recognize his interest in doing good. Everyone knows we want world peace but he represents a multinational organization that has already done some pretty impressive things to make that happen. So it was a beautiful moment the way he was elected. None of the cardinals campaigned for themselves. Francis was elected by other candidates for the same office. There was more a sense of everyone being served well. It was just a very positive experience overall."
Almost as much of a surprise as the choice for Pope itself was the new pontiff's choice of Francis as the name by which his reign would be identified.
"I thought it was a very interesting choice," said Ring. "I think it was a nod to his Jesuit roots and St. Xavier as well as his love for the poor to whom St. Francis of Assisi had great affection. So I think his choice of name was an interesting but appropriate one for his background."
"Francis is such a beautiful name," added St. Martin. "It's the first time a Pope has ever chosen Francis for his name. For about 800 years, the name of St. Francis of Assisi has had an undying spiritual effect for every generation. Everyone loves St. Francis because he helped the Church think about poverty and what it means to live in a simple way. And that's a great thing for us and something that the Holy Father seems to have lived in his personal life. That is, an attempt to live 'gospel poverty.'"
Of the seemingly swift decision by the College of Cardinals in choosing Bergoglio from among an impressive list of contenders, Ring was quick to put the responsibility on a higher power.
"I think the Holy Spirit realized that we waited long enough after Pope Benedict resigned," said Ring. "Usually in the normal course of things after the death of a Pope there are Masses and such before you get into the conclave. This time, the Holy Spirit knew we had to get moving, so it only took two days for the cardinals to make the choice."
But even as Francis I began his first days as the new Pope, it will be his role as the servant of the servants of God that will take uppermost importance as he seeks to right a ship that may have drifted off course in recent years.
"I think he needs to really take a hard look at the abuse crisis and the Church's treatment of it," said Ring. "The Church needs to really kind of work on that more. Even though it has made great strides in that regard, more work needs to be done. And being from Argentina, I think Francis will put a spotlight on the poor. But there's also spiritual poverty as well as material poverty that needs to be addressed. I think he'll be a great champion for the poor, which is good for these challenging times."
"There's going to be an enriching of the Church for everyone," said St. Martin of the healing process. "Of course, with the Pope coming from the other side of the world, he's going to have some unique contributions to make in living out faith that will be exciting to see."
In the end, however, it will be Francis' relationship with his people that will be most important, something that many feel makes him the perfect man for the job.
"I think Francis' election brings a great sense of comfort and stability to the Church," said Ring. "I think that having been without a spiritual father, if it went any longer, there might have been some cause for concern as the Church started to go a little adrift. But I think having him on board gives people a sense of security and stability."
"It's great for the Church because the meaning of catholic is universal," said St. Martin. "Everyone knows the Church is not supposed to be just for the French or the Italians, etc. What we're seeing is that the Church is still moving outward, still reaching all over the world. It was only a few hundred years ago that people in Argentina never even heard of Jesus Christ but they produced priests, then bishops, and now one of their sons has become the leader of the whole Church. That means that part of the Church has truly matured in Christ, and I look forward to the day when we'll have similar men emerge from India and China and Africa."