Boone County Catholics react to election of Pope Francis

Wednesday, March 13, 2013 | 8:17 p.m. CDT; updated 7:24 a.m. CDT, Thursday, March 14, 2013
Parishoners gather at the St. Thomas More Newman Center to watch as the new pope, Pope Francis, is revealed on Wednesday afternoon.

COLUMBIA — Two eight-foot-long banners with red paint reading "Habemus Papam" and "Pope Francis" were stretched across the front entrance of Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School on Wednesday afternoon.

The banners commemorated the naming of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as the new pope of the Catholic Church on Wednesday evening in Rome.

Bergoglio, who took the name Pope Francis, is the first non-European pope since the eighth century and the first Jesuit pope in the history of the church.

Reaction Wednesday among some local Catholics was overwhelmingly positive, with many looking forward to Pope Francis’ tenure as leader of the church.

Fr. Tolton Regional Catholic High School

At Tolton, freshmen Aaron Sander and Sophie Spicci had just finished praying and were in Spanish class when they learned that a new pope had been chosen.

"Señora was handing out our test, and our friend Tyler yelled out, 'There is white smoke!" Spicci said.

"We all jumped up and yelled, 'Habemus Papam!' It was really exciting," Sander said.

Classes took a pause to watch the news, said Ericca Thornhill, a chemistry and physics teacher.

"We take this very seriously," Thornhill said. "We had love for Pope Benedict and have quite a lot of love for Pope Francis already."

On Thursday, Tolton students and teachers will celebrate with a "Pope Party." Students will bring in food, and theology teacher Kristen Bexten and other staff will talk to the students about Pope Francis.

"I'm excited about tomorrow," Spicci said. "You don't get to celebrate your religion in public schools."

For a short time Wednesday, students were allowed to use their phones in class to call their families and even tweet at a Tolton student Twitter handle, @ToltonSwag.

"It was really cool to share faith with each other but also with social media," Spicci said.

Fr. Erick Okpeitcha

A visiting scholar at the Missouri School of Journalism, Fr. Eric Okpeitcha was in an interview when Bergoglio was named the new pope.

Although Bergoglio was a not a mainstream media contender, Okpeitcha said he was surprised and happy to hear of the announcement.

"I'm joyful because the Church has a new pope," he said. "The election of a new Roman pontiff has always been a delicate but graceful moment in the stream of the story of the Church."

The fact that Pope Francis is not European is not an issue for Okpeitcha.

"For me this will not affect the life of the Church, which is by essence universal and Catholic, open to all the nations in the world," he said. "As far as the name is concerned, it reflects the view and the spirituality of the new pope. His well-known humility and dedication to the poor might justify this choice."

Candidate Sid Sullivan

Columbia mayoral candidate Sid Sullivan completed 12 of the 15 years of training required to become a Jesuit priest before leaving the order.

“I think we’ll see a stronger focus on social and economic justice than Benedict,” he said.

While Sullivan doesn’t expect Pope Francis to make any radical changes — “He’s a conservative theologian,” he said — he does suspect the new pope’s Jesuit background will lead to a more transparent church, especially with regard to child sex abuse scandals and the Vatican Bank.

Sullivan said that while Jesuits may land all along the political spectrum, most have a focus on social and economic justice.

According to Sullivan, the Jesuits are normally discouraged from getting involved in the church hierarchy, though the pope has had close Jesuit advisers before.

He looked forward to Pope Francis’ tenure, saying “This is a new era for the church.”

Fr. Andy McAlpin

Fr. Andy McAlpin, an order priest with the Chicago Dominicans, watched the announcement Wednesday afternoon at the St. Thomas More Newman Center and said he was very happy with the conclave’s selection.

"I think it’s fantastic," McAlpin said. "This is a great moment for the Church because most of the Catholic world is Spanish-speaking."

McAlpin spoke well of Pope Francis’ history in the church, saying that he’s a man who worked in ministry and with people for his entire career.

McAlpin predicted that while Pope Francis will not make any major changes to the Church’s teachings, he will probably restructure the Curia, the highest levels of the church's administration, in order to streamline aid to the poor.

Missourian reporter Caitlin Kerfin contributed to this report.

Supervising editor is Zach Murdock.

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