Rousing cheers erupted Wednesday afternoon in Father Matthew Gamber’s senior theology class at Jesuit High School as the world got the first glimpse of the 266th pope.
“The kids love the idea of a Jesuit pope,” said Gamber, a member of newly elected Pope Francis’s religious order. “Now they’re asking for a day off to celebrate.”
That’s not going to happen. Instead, their teacher is planning a classroom party in honor of the new pontiff from Argentina. And in July, Gamber and 50 of his students will travel to Brazil for World Youth Day, to attend one of Francis’ first major events outside of Rome.
The choice “blew me away,” Gamber said. “The first Jesuit pope, the first pope from the Americas. I think this choice will absolutely energize the church.”
The news energized the seminarians at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, said Monsignor David Toups, a 1989 graduate of Clearwater Catholic High School and former pastor at Christ the King parish in Tampa. He was in an auditorium with about 60 young men studying for the priesthood when the white smoke signaled a pope had been selected, triggering a “lot of whooping and hollering.”
“What a historic moment. This shows the cardinals understand we’re much more than a Euro-centric church,” said Toups, now seminary rector. “The time is right for this. It’s going to ignite a Catholic faith renewal all over the world.”
No one knows yet why the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires selected “Francis” as his papal name. Whether it was St. Francis Xavier, co-founder of his religious order, or the beloved St. Francis of Assisi, champion of the poor, “it doesn’t matter,” said Scott Paine, an associate professor at University of Tampa.
“The name evokes a very gentle spirit,” said Paine, who attends St. Mark the Evangelist in Tampa. “Now we’ve got a leader who is very familiar with the church outside of Europe. It makes the statement that we’re a universal church, and what he will bring to the conversation is what is needed for these times.”
Retired Berkeley Prep math teacher Manny Suarez put his hopes on Cardinal Sean O’Malley from Boston, who was considered a long-shot candidate. But getting “anyone from the Americas” was the next best thing, he said.
“It was very generous of the European cardinals to let go and try something new,” Suarez said. “Hispanics around the world are rejoicing over this, as they should be.”
Last month, Bishop Robert Lynch of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg made his own papal prediction, getting one thing right: He chose an Argentine cardinal, just not the one who was selected.
He had suggested Leonardo Sandri as a good choice for the next spiritual leader of the world’s 1 billion Catholics. At a press conference Wednesday, Lynch said that Catholics could “go to bed tonight with a sense of security once again, that we have someone who will lead us in the remaining days of this decade, and with great insight and great pastoral wisdom.”
Some Catholics had hoped for a younger pope to step into the role vacated by Pope Benedict XVI, 85, who retired last month. Sister Marcella Kiesel, a volunteer tutor with the Hillsborough Literacy Council, isn’t bothered by the selection of Bergoglio, 76.
“My field is gerontology, and I’m not into ageism at all,” said Kiesel of the Sisters of St. Francis of Stella Niagra. “Look at what (artist) Grandma Moses accomplished after age 80. What I saw and heard on that balcony was a vital, stately figure, obviously brilliant and very humble. This is just a delightful surprise.”
Tribune reporter Stephen Thompson contributed to this report.