Photos: Pope Francis
Local Catholics expressed excitement and hopefulness Wednesday over the election of a new pope, a cardinal from Latin America who is also a Jesuit.
"We're all very excited to have a Jesuit pope," said Becky Ehrman, who works for Ignatian Volunteer Corps, a Jesuit outreach organization. "I think it's a call to service to the poor. It's a call toward true healing, which we need in the church."
Jorge Mario Bergoglio was named the 266th pope, succeeding Benedict XVI as leader of the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics and inheriting a global church that is growing in some parts of the world but faces serious challenges at home and abroad.
Bergoglio, 76, of Argentina, was elected by his fellow cardinals in their fifth round of voting, securing a two-thirds majority just 24 hours after their conclave began in the magnificent precincts of the Sistine Chapel. He took the papal name Francis I.
“I join the whole church in giving thanks to Almighty God for the gift of a new Holy Father to lead us," Omaha Archbishop George Lucas said in a prepared statement. "I invite all in the Archdiocese of Omaha to pray for Pope Francis as he begins to serve as our chief shepherd. We all look forward to becoming better acquainted with him in the days to come and to enjoying his pastoral leadership.”
In his first speech as Pope Francis I, the new pontiff asked the crowd for its blessing.
That gesture floored Ehrman.
"What a wonderful, humble thing to do to ask for the crowd's blessing before he gave his own," Ehrman said. "It's a great sign of humility and a great sign of a leader for our church."
Bergoglio enters history not only as the first Jesuit pope and the first pope using the name Francis, but also as the first pope from the Americas.
Ehrman said the move makes sense for the church, which is growing fastest in Latin American countries.
Jo Ann Peterson, member of Omaha's Holy Name Church, agreed.
“I think it's good it's someone from Latin America. “
Monsignor Joe Hanefeldt, pastor at Omaha's Christ the King Church, said he was a bit surprised about the age of the new pope – 76.
He said he thought the cardinals might go for a somewhat younger pope, perhaps someone in his 60s or early 70s.
Mary Eileen Andreasen, director of adult faith formation at Omaha's St. Wenceslaus Church, said she didn't know much about the new pope but is optimistic.
“It could be a phenomenal papacy,” she said. “God is full of surprises.”
'It is an affirmation of that part of the world'
The Rev. Jose Mendoza jumped from his chair, clapped and then raised his hand to God after watching the new pope — the first from Latin America — step onto the white balcony at St. Peter's Basilica.
“I thanked God for blessing Latin Americans and all the church,'' said Mendoza, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Agnes parish in South Omaha, who watched TV coverage at his rectory.
Nebraska and Iowa church leaders and lay Catholics said Wednesday that the election of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina in part reflects the important role of Latino Catholics in the region and the world.
“It is an affirmation of that part of the world, where there are so many Catholics, where there is such a vibrant expression of Catholicism,'' said Omaha Archbishop George Lucas.
Martha Connot, who is from Colombia and attends St. Cecilia Cathedral in Omaha, said she expected that the new pope would be another European.
“I thought, wow,” she said. “I was in disbelief.”
The number of Latino Catholics has been growing in Nebraska, and they play an important role in the church, Lucas said.
Statewide, Nebraska's Latino population jumped 77 percent between 2000 and 2010. Counts also rose significantly in Iowa.
Cristo Rey Church opened in Lincoln a decade ago to help serve Hispanic Catholics and has grown from 250 families to more than 1,000, said the Rev. Ramon Decaen, pastor.
Mendoza, who is from Venezuela, said Latinos make up about three-fourths of the 2,500 families at his parish. They play significant roles as volunteers in everything from serving as lectors and leading youth groups to supporting the church financially.
He said he believes that Pope Francis will help strengthen the acceptance of Latino immigrants — all immigrants — in the United States and elsewhere.
The Rev. Jose Chavez, a pastor based at Immaculate Conception Church in Elm Creek, Neb., noted that the new pope is the son of middle-class Italian immigrants and was raised in the Argentine capital.
“Talk about someone who knows about immigration,'' he said.
The Rev. Paul Colling, vicar of Hispanic affairs for the diocese of Grand Island, said the new pope might encourage local bishops across the world to continue pushing for immigration reform.
Bergoglio, who had been archbishop of Buenos Aires, is known as a humble man who spoke out for the poor and often rode the bus to work, cooked his own meals and regularly visited the slums that ring Argentina's capital.
“I love his humility,” said Mayra Moriel de Banuelos, coordinator of Hispanic ministry for the Des Moines Diocese.
"I'm praying he will be wonderful"
When the curtain closed Wednesday afternoon on the annual children's operetta at St. Cecilia's Catholic School, Principal Paulette Rourke walked up to the stage.
The new pope has been chosen, she announced, and told them the selection was Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, a Jesuit.
The audience of about 400 – mostly parents and grandparents of students – erupted with cheers and applause.
"Oh, it's wonderful!" said Georgeann Prusa, 82. "I have no idea who he is, but I'm praying he will be wonderful."
Jack Sehi, 13, and Matthew Finnigan, 14, who are headed next year to Creighton Prep, a Jesuit school, were beaming.
"I think it's a good experience for us," Jack said.
"Finding out right now is good. We're probably going to learn more about him in religion class," Matthew said.
Tony Romero, father of five, including two sons at Prep, said he was most excited about the new pope being Jesuit.
"They're leaders in education and learning," he said of the religious order.
He described Jesuits as "in-laws" in the Catholic Church and anticipates they will gain validation from the selection.
Tim Sully, father of three and a Creighton University graduate, said, "I think it's the coolest. I think a Jesuit would make a great pope and lead the world's Catholics with compassion, intelligence and a sense of humor."
"God is full of surprises"
When Mary Eileen Andreasen heard that Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as the pope, she wasn't sure what to think.
She knew almost nothing about the cardinal, who began his term as Pope Francis on Wednesday afternoon.
"We're a little shocked," said Andreasen, director of adult faith information at St. Wenceslaus. "I don't really know anything about this guy, nor have I seen a lot of bios on this guy."
Andreasen said she was hoping that if the cardinals were to select a pope from outside Europe, it would be American Timothy Dolan or Sean O'Malley. Even Canadian Marc Ouellet or Filipino Luis Antonio Tagle would have been satisfactory.
Now Andreasen isn't sure what to think of the Argentinian.
"I was a little nervous when he came out on the balcony. He didn't show a lot of charisma with the crowd," she said.
Despite her nerves, she is hopeful for the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
"If he's as humble as he looks like he is, that could mean a lot for the Roman Curia. That could mean a lot for reform," she said. "It could work out to be absolutely wonderful. It could be a phenomenal papacy, God is full of surprises."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.