Roman Catholics throughout Washington County joined the billions of faithful around the world who welcomed Pope Francis I into the highest position of the religion Wednesday.
“It’s a happy day,” said Father John Bateykefer, pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Canonsburg. “It’s a great day in the church.”
Bateykefer said when a parishioner called to tell him white smoke was seen billowing out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, he ran to ring the bells of the cathedral.
“It’s the new pope’s introduction to Rome and to the world,” Bateykfer said.
Like most parishes across the globe, St. Patrick’s is preparing for a special Mass this morning that will honor and give thanks for the new pope.
“We’ve been praying that the Holy Spirit touch (the Cardinals’) hearts that they choose a good man,” Bateykfer said. “He’s the best person for times and exactly what we needed.”
Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, was introduced to the public Wednesday as Francis I, the 265th pontiff. The Argentine Bergoglio holds the distinction of being the first Jesuit and first South American to lead the church.
Despite creating historic precedents, Francis is not expected to be a proactive reformer, something the media coverage surrounding the papal decision had been questioning.
For many years, the church has had to deal with bad press and changing social norms.
“Everyone is aware of the scandals,” said David Mechler, 25, of South Hills. “Somebody has to say, ‘This is enough,’ and change it.”
Mechler, who has been Catholic his whole life, said he had hoped that the election of a new pope would breathe new life into the debate surrounding volatile social topics such as gay and clerical marriage and birth control.
“I think over the past 10 or 15 years, you’ve seen a shift,” Mechler said. “You can say we are naive, but my generation looks at priests getting married differently.”
Not all young people shared Mechler’s outlook. A group of students gathered at the Newman Center near Washington & Jefferson College to watch the introduction of the new religious leader.
Jacob Ulishney, 21, said he learned via a Twitter update that the new pope had been chosen.
“I’m hoping Francis will continue the traditions, both liturgically and theologically,” Ulishney said. “I really believe he will do that.”
Fellow student Stefanie Mogel, 22, also thought the cardinals had made a good decision with Francis.
“I definitely got a good vibe from him,” Mogel said. “He seemed so excited. I was really surprised he asked for prayer for himself before he blessed the crowd. He seems so humble.”
The new pontiff’s namesake, St. Francis, was known for humility. Born into nobility, the historic priest gave up material wealth to live a strict life in the mountain city of Asisi, Italy, roughly 800 years ago.
“Just the fact that the new pope picked the name Francis is really symbolic,” said Father Bob Miller of St. Benedict the Abbot Church in McMurray. “Humility and solidarity with the poor will do much to preach reform in our church – a reform to bring us back to the basics of ‘Love thy neighbor.’
“I think people want meaning and direction in their life, and our faith can do that in the modern world. He’s somebody who can make our faith relevant again in young people’s lives.”
Miller said St. Francis’ message of peace and love is exactly what is needed in an increasingly divided world. He expected the new leader to engage all communities – Catholic, Protestant and those of other faiths. He said the church has a lot to teach the world from its experiences in places like Africa, where Catholics and Muslims live side-by-side and often work together to maintain the peace.
“The pope is someone we all can look to for guidance and inspiration,” Miller said. “He can set the tone for a new church around the world. We’re all waiting with joyful anticipation for what he may bring to the church.”