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All over Shelbyville on Wednesday, people were texting each other, calling, and rejoicing when the news broke around 3 p.m. that a new pope finally had been selected.
When newly elected Pope Francis appeared on television before a huge crowd in St. Peter’s Square in Rome and asked for his congregation’s prayers, a Shelby County priest said he was overcome with emotion.
“In front of one-hundred-thousand people, he bowed his head and said, ‘I want your prayers for me,’ and tears fell from my eyes, and I dropped to my knees in prayer,” said Mike Tobin, pastor of the Church of the Annunciation.
“Let us pray in silence, this your prayer for me,” said Pope Francis, who is Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio.
Tobin made the observation, as has been noted worldwide, that Francis is the first pope from the Americas – in fact the first non-European pope since the 700s – the first Jesuit pope and the first pope to take the name of Francis.
The fact that Bergoglio chose the name Francis, drawing connections to the humble 13th-century saint who saw his calling as trying to rebuild the church in a time of turmoil, is especially meaningful to Tobin.
“How much more can you demonstrate that you want to be a shepherd rather than a monarch?” he said.
Attention worldwide had been on the Vatican, where a conclave of cardinals had gathered to elect the successor for Pope Benedict, many watching for the telltale white smoke to be released from the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, signifying a complete election.
Phyllis Sower, principal of Our Lady of Guadalupe Academy in Simpsonville, said the announcement that a pope had been elected caused a sensation among her students Wednesday afternoon.
“We all gathered around the TV the moment we heard that white smoke had appeared; we had been live streaming it since it started on Tuesday,” she said. “The children were excited; the adults were excited. We were just all watching with great expectations, were very pleased with the selection of the new pope.”
Sower, like Tobin, remarked on the pope’s humility, caring and holiness.
“It’s surprising that he’s non-European, but it’s wonderful to have a pope from this side of the Atlantic,” she said, expressing surprise echoed by many who expected that one of several other prominent cardinals would be elected.
Francis, the son of middle-class Italian immigrants, is a long-time archbishop of Buenos Aires who has spent nearly his entire career in Argentina, overseeing churches there. He is well known for his humility, living very simply, without indulging in luxuries, even riding the bus to work, cooking his own meals and regularly visiting the slums that surround Argentina's capital.
He nearly become pope in 2005, gaining the second-highest vote total in several rounds of voting in the conclave that elected Pope Benedict XVI, 85, who resigned suddenly and unexpectedly in February, citing ill health and an inability to continue to lead the church.
The last pope to resign was Pope Gregory XII in 1415, who stepped down to end the "Great Western Schism,” during which there were rival claims to the papal throne.
In 1294, Pope Celestine V resigned after only five months, saying that he preferred the simple life of a monk to the majesty of being pope.
There has been some speculation that Pope Benedict might have chosen this particular time to resign to ensure a new pope would be in place for Easter.
Shelbyville resident Gary Walls, a member of Annunciation, said that the timing of the election of a new pope has awed him for personal reasons, as his son had previously given him a gift of a trip to Rome for Easter.
“To think that I will be there during this time – well, it’s just too amazing for words,” he said.
Shelby County Judge-Executive Rob Rothenburger, who is also a Catholic, said that in watching the new pope’s first speech to the crowd, he felt like the pope was, in his own way, sending a message of hope for the future of the Catholic Church, which has been riddled with scandal.
“I was thinking last night about how the pope, in reciting the Lord’s Prayer, put an emphasis on ‘forgive us for our trespasses,’” he said. “To me, that means that, yes, we need to remember what happened in the past, but it’s time to move on.
“I think that’s exactly what is needed in the Catholic Church. We shouldn’t forget what happened, but it’s time to move on and come together once again as Catholics.”
Rothenburger said he thinks the new pope is an excellent choice for both North and South America, as the Latino population comprises 40 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
“There is a growing Latino population in the United States, and we are closely tied with South America, and the Latino Community is deeply entrenched in Catholicism,” he said.
Tobin said having a Latin American pope means a great deal to the Latino population in Shelby County.
“Out of nine-hundred and fifty families in our parish, four hundred are Hispanic,” he said.
Francis will be installed officially on Tuesday, on the feast of St. Joseph.