At around 2 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, Mary Bachinski, the owner of Catholic Gifts and Books in Chesterfield, received a call with from her sister with some exciting news.
White smoke had been spotted at the Vatican. Bachinski hollered out to everyone in the store “We’ve got a new pope!”, prompting squeals of excitement and sending people reaching for their phones.
A lifelong Catholic and resident of Maryland Heights, Bachinski said the College of Cardinals selection of Jose Bergoglio was a surprise, but added she trusts that they went with the best choice. In any case, she called the news a blessing.
“It’s wonderful to have our leader in place,” she said, especially as the church's biggest holiday, Easter, draws closer.
Excitement and surprise also prevailed at Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Webster Groves, where Fr. Bob Reiker noted that at 76, Bergoglio was older than many of the other frontrunners. The descriptions of the new Pope as humble man dedicated to the poor delighted Reiker, as did his choice of name – Pope Francis I.
“Taking a name that no one has before is a sign that he is going to start something new,” Reiker said.
The selection of the South American Archbishop, the first pope from outside of Europe in a millennia and the third in a row not from Italy, is also indicative of a new pattern in the process of papal selection, Reiker said.
Fr. Dennis Stehly at Ascension Catholic Church in Chesterfield took immediate action when he first heard the news of white smoke. Along with an associate pastor, he rang the church’s bells for around 15 minutes, ending their peals at the same time they stopped sounding half a world away in Rome.
“It’s a historic and dramatic moment,” he said, reflecting on the footage of emotional crowds at St. Peter’s Basilica. “People are just excited to be there.”
Stehly said Bergoglio has “all the tools necessary” to be a good Pope, including intelligence, administrative experience and fluency with the Italian language. It also signals a renewed focus on South America, which Stehly said is home to half the world’s Catholic population.
Like Reiker, he noted Pope Francis’ humble life in Buenos Aires, saying he lived in an apartment rather than a palace.
“I think any time a man of such humility assumes such awesome responsibility, it’s a wonderful sign,” he said.
That responsibility will come with a host of challenges as the Catholic Church’s leader, ranging from the continuing controversy over the child sex abuse scandal to managing dwindling pews in the West and rapidly expanding congregations in Africa and Asia.
However, for Catholics around the world, the appointment of Pope Francis is a moment of hope for the church’s future. Back at the Catholic bookstore, Bachinski said she believes he is up for the task and could be in some ways better suited for the position than his predecessor, the now retired Pope Benedict.
“I think Pope Benedict was so scholarly that he may not have related as well to the people,” she said. “This pope might have an advantage in that area.”