Catholic communities from around the world were glued to televisions last week waiting for black or white smoke to pour from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel. The hopefulness that has taken hold since the white smoke rose up and the election of Pope Francis was announced is also evident here on Martha’s Vineyard.
Good Shepherd Parish is made up of the three Island Catholic churches; St. Augustine’s in Vineyard Haven, Our Lady Star of the Sea in Oak Bluffs and St. Elizabeth’s in Edgartown. There are 650 registered families at the parish, with the population swelling in the summertime. Even though there were quite a few fans rooting for the local favorite, Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Catholics on the Vineyard are pleased with the outcome of the conclave.
The spiritual leader of the Island’s Catholics, Father Michael Nagle said he feels the election of Pope Francis is a breath of fresh air not unlike the election in the late 1950s of Pope John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council, which modernized the Catholic Church.
“It’s similar to when John the 23rd was elected,” Father Nagle said. “There’s a real sense of excitement. He [Pope John XXIII] opened up the windows and let fresh air in, and it looks like that’s the track Pope Francis is on.”
Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, wasn’t on the short list of those the media covered as “papabile,” or likely to be elected pope. He wasn’t even on many long lists and yet he was elected by the 115 cardinals under the age of 80 allowed to vote for the pope. Often referred to as the “princes” of the Roman Catholic Church, the cardinals appeared to look outside the box with their selection of Pope Francis.
Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope. He is the first pope from the Americas and he is the first pope to take the name “Francis,” after one of the church’s most venerated saints, Francis of Assisi. He may very well be the first in recent memory to shun the trappings of pope. As a member of a religious community, the Jesuits, or Society of Jesus, Pope Francis took a vow of poverty along with his vow of chastity and obedience when he was ordained. Already he has surprised many with his simplicity.
One of the reasons why the new pope is exuding such simplicity, Father Nagle said, is because he is a member of a religious order. This means he has chosen to be a part of a religious community, studying, living, eating and sharing life with the other members of the Jesuit community. He is a Jesuit, Father Nagle said, which means one day he could be superior of his community and another day he could be cleaning or cooking for them.
Vineyarder Sergio Racig is, like Pope Francis, an Argentinian with Italian ancestry. Mr. Racig is a member of Good Shepherd Parish and is familiar with the new pope through Pope Francis’ work as a priest and cardinal in Buenos Aires.
“Oh yes, we know him very well,” Mr. Racig said after last Sunday’s Mass at St. Augustine’s. “We know him as a humble cardinal. The people call him Father Jorge. He doesn’t like cardinal or eminence. He is a simple man.”
Mr. Racig was openly pleased at the conclave’s outcome. His wife, Esther, said Mr. Racig has taken to answering the telephone “Hello, Vatican offices,” when his friends call. Like many Argentinians, Mr. Racig has put up the Vatican flag in his yard in Oak Bluffs and another one in his car. Mr. Racig moved to Martha’s Vineyard a little more than four years ago and met his wife through their mutual interest in salsa dancing. Now they teach the technique.
“I was very, very surprised,” Mr. Racig said. “I was in shock for at least 15 minutes. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Mr. Racig validated what much of the media has reported — the new pope preferred taking public transportation and he lived in a small apartment in Buenos Aires near the cathedral rather than more opulent surroundings.
“My guess is he might try to fix most of the important problems the church has. He might try to find solutions. He wants to walk with the poor like Jesus Christ did. Pope Francis will bring a new way, a new road,” Mr. Racig said.
Deacon Karl Buder assists Father Nagle with the parish, often ministering to the Brazilian population on the Island. There is a 7 p.m. mass performed in Portuguese on Saturdays at Our Lady Star of the Sea.
“They are extremely happy that somebody who is their neighbor was elected pope,” Deacon Buder said. “You can see his humanity and the way he connects with people.”
Deacon Buder agreed with Father Nagle in that they both had thought Cardinal O’Malley might have a shot at the top spot, spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. “Pope Francis has a lot of the personal qualities we all admire in Cardinal Sean,” Deacon Buder said. “Or should we say it’s the other way around now?”
The election of the new pope was discussed at all levels of the parish, even the children and teens participated in the conversations. The youth minister, Stacy Cretor, explained that the parish youth group held their own conclave and after three rounds of voting, managed to agree on their own “pope.” The experience helped to educate the young people on the election of the pope, Ms. Cretor said.
“We played a trivia game about Pope Benedict and we explained the process of the conclave and electing a new pope,” she said. “I did get some feedback from parents who said the kids were more attentive about watching and waiting for the smoke.”
Sue Pagliccia serves as religious education director for the young people at Good Shepherd. She is in charge of faith formation for those ages 3 to 12, and even though there wasn’t much chance of explaining a conclave to a three year old, Ms. Pagliccia did use the opportunity to explain the hierarchy, vocabulary and tradition of the faith to religious education students in the higher elementary grades.
“Most of them engaged in prayer and we explained that’s how we could participate,” Ms. Pagliccia said.
Both Ms. Cretor and Ms. Pagliccia said they felt the students on the Island became more aware of the universality of their church and felt a sense of belonging as they waited for the election of the new pope. “Here’s an opportunity to see a man who is simple and humble, who is what we’re all about,” Ms. Pagliccia said.
“For those of us who love the church no matter what is going on, it’s good to see the church so alive,” added Ms. Cretor.
Father Nagle said more than anything, the selection of Pope Francis has meant a sense of excitement and joy for the church.
“He breaks tradition,” Father Nagle said. “His name cuts through the tradition and gets to the core, to his care of the poor and the people. [News reports said] He seemed like he was upset with priests who were being clerical and not baptizing children of unwed mothers. His message is ‘don’t be a bureaucrat’ and ‘how can we best be of service to others?’ He’s getting us back to basics, and it’s not business as usual.”
“He’s the real deal.”